Artificial warfare

Robots take over a mock-German town on Salisbury Plain

Copehill Down, on Salisbury Plain, is a mock-German town that spends most of its time pretending to be a Middle Eastern village for troop training sessions in urban warfare. But for three days in August it has had robots on patrol.

The town hosted the Ministry of Defence's Grand Challenge final, in which 11 teams tested robot surveillance systems. The MoD hid roadside bombs and marksmen, while the teams designed an autonomous system that could detect, identify, locate and report on these threats.

Most came up with a mix of unmanned air and ground vehicles (UAVs and UGVs). There was a group of highly manoeuvrable helicopters, a converted bomb-disposal vehicle - the eventual winner - and a buggy previously deployed at Sellafield to rescue people in the event of a nuclear accident. Some of the systems were small enough to fly into buildings. Others had chemical sniffers.

One of the greatest challenges was retrieving the images from the device and designing software capable of understanding what it was looking at. Team Stella's software had been taught to recognise different vehicles. It could also scan windows, detect heat signatures, and decide if a target was a cat or a sniper.

While a few big defence firms such as Thales took part, the Grand Challenge aimed to get small companies and universities involved. Sixth forms at Bruton School for Girls and the Royal Grammar School in Guildford also participated.

The systems are not only for overseas use. Last year, Merseyside Police launched a test drone for surveillance that started off as a military system. In recent evidence to the House of Commons, the defence firm Northrop Grumman predicted that UAVs will "migrate into civilian roles", including disaster relief, crowd control, anti-terrorism surveillance, maritime search and support to the coastguard, police, fire and intelligence services.

Professor John Beddington, the government's chief scientific adviser, argues that the Grand Challenge entries would have positive civilian spin-offs. "It might be landmine clearance, monitoring natural disasters, major fires or industrial problems. There are tremendous possibilities," he said.

But Chris Langley, principal researcher at the pressure group Scientists for Global Responsibility, is not so sure. "These robotic devices, in either conflict or civilian contexts, have a number of serious question marks," he said. "Failure rates in densely populated areas are unknown. And is technology the most effective way to counter the threats posed by 'terrorists'? Would it not be most cost-effective to understand better the nature of such threats?" Langley also questions the ethics of getting schools involved.

Steve Christopher, head of design and technology at Bruton School for Girls, says there are few positive engineering role models for children. Instead, defence companies are filling that gap.

"I've never had a school say no because we are a defence company," says Dawn Ohlson, director of educational affairs at Thales. "But then it depends on how you present it. We don't go in and say, 'Would you like to see our guns?'"

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food