Flying saucers, micro-choppers and mini-tanks - next-gen frontline tech

TechRadar visits the UK armed forces' urban training facility

MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge MOD Grand Challenge

Mini-helicopters designed to pick out snipers from the air. Budget buggies detecting potential bombs from the ground. Micro-gliders on reconnaissance. We witnessed them all yesterday - as part of the Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge on Salisbury Plain near Warminster, Wiltshire.

Full image gallery to follow

The Grand Challenge was launched by the MOD in 2006. The concept was for experts from industry and academia to club together and devise innovative unmanned air and ground vehicles to help in urban combat.

The 'battle' took place over the last few days in Copehill Down Village on Salisbury Plain – the UK's biggest training ground for troops. The village itself is fake; 86 buildings built in the 1980s with the express purpose of training for urban warfare.

Low-flying saucer

The expensively-staged competition was won by Team Sellar, who devised a tracked unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) and associated systems which drive autonomously around an urban environment. The team were presented with their award, the RJ Mitchell trophy, formed from the wing strut of a spitfire and named after the plane's designer during a ceremony hosted by Vicki Butler-Henderson and Philippa Forrester.

Other teams included Professor Joe Barnard who used commercial available mini helicopters and gliders to take reconnaissance imagery of enemy targets. Team Mira competed with a 'flying saucer' able to hover at low level over targets while the Thales and University of Reading team used a combination of GPS-guided mini-helicopters and UGVs.

The idea was that the teams should be able to develop equipment that could be used on the front line without specialist operators.

Identifying threats

Twenty-three teams applied to enter the competition in May 2007. Fourteen were selected to start the competition, and eleven survived to start the final. The MOD funded six of the teams - which comprised 17 small and medium enterprises, seven universities and two schools.

Each team had one hour to send their flying and ground vehicles into Copehill Down where a team of judges awarded points for the performance of the vehicles in identifying threats and relaying the information back to team members via communications systems.

During the competition it became obvious that few of the competitors had made their systems robust enough to withstand the currently appalling August weather – an area the judges singled out for improvement.

The village was filled with actors and props stretching teams to the limit by blurring the lines between innocent bystanders and armed militia

The intention is that the technologies demonstrated will be implemented into research and development for future military kit.