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The Toronto Star

War of The future: Robot versus Robot

Mitch Potter

LONDON-A fleet of tiny tanks, each no bigger than a breadbox, cruising in remote-control formation down the dusty alleys of Afghanistan to neutralize roadside bombs.0502 03 1

Elsewhere on the battlefield, a matrix of palm-sized sensors scattered strategically by robot helicopters kick into action and instantly begin beaming the high-definition whereabouts of insurgents poised to pounce.

In control of it all, beyond the margins of danger, are the soldiers themselves, whose combat kit soon may come replete with a scanner capable of detecting a suicide bomber from a survivable distance of 20 metres.

These are but a few of the concepts-in-progress revealed to reporters in London this week, where the Ministry of Defence pulled back the classified curtain for a glimpse of a robotics revolution that may one day render conflict bloodless to all but those in the crosshairs.

Cutting-edge military research and development is hardly new in Britain, which commands an estimated third of the world's controversial $60 billion global arms market, second only to the United States.

Yet the innovations unveiled Wednesday represent something else - a short-list of finalists competing in a direct challenge from the British government for high-tech, remote-controlled solutions to the kind of asymmetrical modern conflicts playing out today in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Grand Challenge (detailed at was launched in 2006 in an attempt to solve modern military riddles by harkening back to a golden era of British innovation epitomized by aviation designer R.J. Mitchell, who answered a similar government challenge with the Spitfire, which brought decisive victory in World War II's Battle of Britain.

A token of that legacy is offered now in the R.J. Mitchell Trophy, an award crafted from the now-antique metal of an actual Spitfire. The prize will be presented in August to the best of the 23 proposals from the academic and private sector after field trials are held at Copehill Down, the British military's urban warfare training centre.

Robotics, avionics and complex data-processing software were the common denominators in the array of 11 finalists unveiled at a conference centre adjacent to the British Parliament, which included ground and aerial unmanned vehicles equipped with thermal imaging, radar and lasers.


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Several of the systems entailed futuristic flying bots built from scratch. Others, such as the fleet-formation ground system by the British firm Mindsheet, are adapting conceptual robot armies based on over-the-counter cars available at hobby shops everywhere.

"We chose not to reinvent the wheel but to work instead with the wheels readily available. That way we are able to more easily concentrate on providing a tool that a soldier in Afghanistan would be able to begin using immediately," said Mindsheet managing director Raglan Tribe.

With an estimated value of $2,400 each - in military terms, slightly less than the cost of a mortar round - Mindsheet envisions their robots to be expendable in battle. Operated by "smartphone" technology, the cars can be controlled in real-time by a front-line soldier to identify and ignite potentially deadly roadside bombs, becoming, in effect, suicide robots.

Other finalists include: Dragonfly Air Systems, a lightweight aerial drone with sensor package developed by Toronto-based Gress Aerospace; Israel's Controp Technologies and Birmingham University.

Several British universities, Reading and Bristol among them, comprise the Thales Team, which is developing an "image-fusion system" designed to integrate and process the growing amounts of raw data from multiple sensors in the field to help soldiers better identify friend from foe.

"This challenge is all about how to use emerging technology to protect both the soldiers and the innocent civilians," said Bristol University's Nisham Canagarajah.

"The goal is to take all that high-density, detailed information that modern sensors and cameras collect and boil it down to its most valuable state so that a soldier can understand where there is a threat and where there is not a threat. There are lots of new ideas at the university level that we can apply. This is going to save lives."

Relying upon computer processing to detect, identify and locate threats - an "autonomous system" in military jargon - raises other questions. If the system goes wrong, can a computer be tried for war crimes? Or the system's designer?

"It is a weird extrapolation, the idea that war is becoming a scenario of `Your robots versus our robots,' Why not just fight it out on a video game instead?" said Mindsheet's Tribe. "But this is where things are moving."

© 2008 The Toronto Sun

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