A new fleet of robots and drones designed to test for chemical agents, identify battlefield and disaster casualties, and provide 3D mapping services, has been put through its paces in the UK by troops, police officers, and scientists.
The two-week series of trials, which took place at Gloucestershire Fire Service College, saw concept drones and robots tested in scenarios that simulated contaminated zones in the wake of chemical attacks or leaks.
Tests included robots that can ‘read’ and climb stairs and miniature drones that can rapidly assess hazards.
The trials were part of the British government’s Project Minerva, a £3 million research programme founded in 2016 to investigate the use of autonomous systems to assess contaminated hazard zones.
Its aim is to reduce the risk to first responders, emergency services, and front-line troops attending incidents, or operations involving hazardous chemical or biological materials.
The project is led by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL, part of the Ministry of Defence), jointly funded by the MoD and the Home Office, and contracted through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA).
Phase one of Project Minerva – named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare – ran for six months to July 2017 and funded the development of 18 possible solutions. In phase two, four teams were selected from that shortlist to develop their concepts further, and these were the technologies tested.
• Red Alert, by BMT Defence Services, with Rescue Global, plus Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh Universities. This unmanned aerial system brings together gas-sensing technology with 2D-and-3D mapping and modelling. The rig is mounted on commercially available drones to allow upgrades as drone technology evolves.
• Horiba MIRA, with a small, purpose-designed ground robot, which can deploy on decontamination missions, climb stairs, and ‘read’ or recognise chemical signs and symbols, exploiting neural network technology.
•SceneSEARCH by Loughborough University, with Swarm Systems and Createc. This pocket-sized drone weighs in at less than 250g and carries gas sensors, together with video and thermal imaging capabilities.
• Snake Eyes, by Autonomous Devices Limited and Pendar. A hybrid air and ground vehicle optimised for confined spaces. It can relay 3D images and detect chemical agents using a compact laser system.
The prototype technologies were tested against the speed and accuracy of human response teams by scientists from the DSTL, together with representatives from the military, police, and fire services.
The Salisbury context
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson said, “Following the reckless nerve agent attack in Salisbury this year, we have seen the bravery and professionalism of our armed forces, emergency services, and MOD scientists. They have worked tirelessly to investigate and clean up deadly contaminated areas.
“This project will ensure we stay at the forefront of dealing with such heinous attacks, whether on our streets or on foreign battlefields. We are investing millions in this pioneering technology to do more to protect those who so fearlessly protect us.”
Minister of state for Security and Economic Crime, Ben Wallace, added, “I am excited to see the UK being on the front-foot and leading in the development of these autonomous technologies which are secure, reliable, and useful for dangerous sites.
“The potential to protect our responders and protect the public from potentially hazardous scenes is considerable. The UK’s experience and pedigree in security means we are in a prime position to identify what is best placed to tackle the threats of the future.”
Peter Stockel, DSTL’s autonomy lead, said, “These two weeks of trials see the culmination of over 18 months of work to realise an exciting vision, which could see robots and humans working together in demanding situations and potentially save lives when dealing with incidents involving hazardous substances.
“In this technology exploration, we’ve been working with industry and academia to rapidly advance robotic and autonomous solutions to enhance our response options and tools for the near future.
“With continued involvement across government, and demonstration with the user community, we aim to mature this emergent capability to test the ‘art of the possible’ and accelerate this into the hands of the prospective users for further operational evaluation, both for MOD and the Home Office.”
Major John Green, military advisor to DSTL, added, “The military is putting a lot of time and effort into CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] and Minerva could have a significant effect on our capability and potentially decrease the training burden. It is a project for everything else to build on.”
Internet of Business says
While there are sensitivities around weaponising AI and creating autonomous killing machines, this is a defensive programme that builds on drones’ and robots’ ability to aid first responders.
There are significant safety risks to human responders when incidents involves chemical or biological warfare agents, or large amounts of harmful industrial materials. Risks increase further in difficult environments, such as in enclosed spaces, unstable structures, fire, deep water, or if the scene contains active hostile elements.
When the government launched Project Minerva in 2016, it said, “We’re looking for technologies that remove the need to have a person in a potentially hazardous environment, while still assessing the scene as effectively. This will free the responder to conduct other activities, while also keeping them safe.”