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British Competitors Craft Urban Warfare Capability

July 2007
By Catherine Imperatore

Four British service members take part in a simulated attack on a village during exercise Lion Sun 2005. The Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge is designed to yield a system that would protect U.K. troops as they conduct urban warfare.
U. K. contest calls on entrants to build the perfect tool to protect British troops.

The U.K. government is challenging British science and technology innovators to apply all their brainpower to helping protect the nation’s forces from danger in an urban battlespace. The objective of the Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge competition is to yield a highly autonomous system that will detect, identify, monitor and report fully and partially obscured threats in urban areas in real time. This call to action is part of the ministry’s strategy to involve industry and academia in U.K. defense challenges.

Entrants of the competition can present any kind of technical solution that would detect threats that troops could encounter in a village or urban site, including snipers concealed on roof tops, civilian vehicles mounted with heavy weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices. Systems should be mostly to fully autonomous and require little operator effort. Solutions also must be lightweight and easy to access with a low acoustic and visual signature. In addition, the tools should be either easily replaceable or highly resistant to countermeasures.

In mid-May potential competitors—limited to U.K.-based companies, research facilities and universities—submitted proposals that outlined the solutions they would pursue. In June teams were selected for participation based on the strength of the proposed system design, although Ministry of Defence (MOD) personnel have said that cost effectiveness also was a criterion.

Some participants will receive funding ranging from several thousand to several hundred thousand pounds from the MOD upon completion of their competition entries, while others are funding their own solutions. Both types of teams will compete in the finale in summer 2008. The winning team could receive funding for development and fielding.

The event’s location has not yet been determined; however, MOD planners say it probably will be held at Copehill Down, a military training site in Wiltshire, United Kingdom, that features a life-size model urban village.

Fulfilling all the MOD’s system requirements is a tall order. However, Peter Mallinson, a business development manager with Roke Manor Research Limited in Romsey, Hampshire, United Kingdom, is confident that achieving such a system is within the bounds of possibility for current technology. Roke Manor Research’s team will develop a solution that is based on a collection of sensors that can form an ad hoc network. The company will work with partners to pursue various platforms for transporting the sensors into an urban environment.

Dr. Julia Richardson, director of Stellar Research Services Limited, Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom, also has put together a consortium from academia and industry to develop a system for the Grand Challenge. The group’s solution employs unmanned aerial and ground vehicles. Robots outfitted with sensors will report their findings to a remote processing station that uses novel algorithms to process data and to direct the vehicles’ behavior.

Richardson believes that a year is enough time to produce the system, although she would prefer to have more time to rehearse for the finale. She notes that the deadline will encourage the team to be extremely exact. “[The MOD] wants the best that can be done in a year, and a year isn’t very long. But on the other hand, it does focus the mind,” Richardson says. 

Mallinson views the time constraints as driving the Grand Challenge participants toward systems integration. “If the challenge were not constrained by a 12-month period of development, then you would do more building up from the ground … You’d tailor the solution more closely to what the troops require,” he relates. In some cases, teams may have to make choices about systems integration that they would not have made if they had more time. “The challenge is how you fix together the commercial off-the-shelf equipment and bring a lot of innovation into it to actually make it work. That’s a huge challenge, and that’s not to be underestimated,” Mallinson observes.

At the end of the development year, the competitors will demonstrate their systems during a two-week meet. Each team will receive information about the reconnaissance mission, including a scripted verbal briefing and hard-copy schematics, on the day of the demonstration. Less than 30 minutes after the briefing, the team must deploy its solution to detect threats in the mock village. The mission will last no longer than one hour, including the time it takes to generate output, which will be received by a service member on the judges’ panel acting as the mission’s tactical commander.

The judges’ panel, consisting of independent evaluators, will assess each team’s system based on the number of threats detected, identified and located; the number of false alarms raised; the need for operator intervention in information processing; and the need for operator intervention in platform operation. Hostile forces will populate the village, but the MOD has not determined whether forces will be real or simulated.

The remote-controlled SWORDS, or Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System, is demonstrated at Copehill Down, a facility for training U.K. troops in urban operations. Grand Challenge participants may use robotic vehicles to meet the competition’s goal of achieving an autonomous system for detecting threats in an urban environment.
Richardson explains that the finale is an unknown element for the participants, no matter how much information they have in advance. She finds the physical demonstration a refreshing aspect of the competition. “You have to put your money where your mouth is,” she observes.

Lord Paul Drayson, minister of state for defense equipment and support and the leading force behind the MOD Grand Challenge, has noted that the contest is modeled on the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Grand Challenge, an autonomous vehicle competition that will be held for the third time in November. “DARPA’s experience has proved that setting world-class technology challenges to a broad community really does reap results,” he said in his speech launching the MOD Grand Challenge. However, the two competitions differ in that the DARPA Grand Challenge calls for a specific type of system, an unmanned ground vehicle, whereas the U.K. contest has no limits on what kind of system can be presented as a solution.

Mallinson believes that the Grand Challenge format as a competition will be more effective in producing solutions than the traditional bid process. “It’s bringing forward the ideas, and the problem with a lot of the traditional cycles is they bring forward  only people who are familiar with the contracting process,” he points out. Mallinson adds that it may be difficult for some companies, especially smaller ones, to engage with large MOD programs.

The Grand Challenge is an example of changes brought about in the MOD by the Defence Technology Strategy, a government initiative that outlines MOD research and development priorities and encourages the involvement of industry and academia in innovation. Another project that has emerged from the Defence Technology Strategy is the Competition of Ideas, a program that funds promising solutions to specific technical challenges for U.K. defense. Proposals for that competition were due in January, and contracts are being awarded on a rolling basis.

Richardson explains that the MOD is trying to move away from its in-house research program to get industry and academia more involved in developing defense capabilities. And although the MOD reduced the number of DEFCONs—defense conditions—typically required of proposals for the Grand Challenge contract process, she notes that bidding on a project with the MOD still is not simple. “It’s not as straightforward contracting with the MOD as it would be contracting with another SME [small- and medium-size enterprise] down the road or with another university,” she explains.

Dr. Tony Dodd, lecturer in aerospace systems engineering at the University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom, did not find entering the competition as easy as he had expected. Dodd says he considered applying to develop an unmanned aerial vehicle with four rotors that would enable the craft to hover, but his team was held up by two roadblocks: contract details and money. The proposal rules called for particulars on what the team would accomplish. Given the experimental nature of the work, he was not comfortable making too many promises.

In addition, as a university team, the group would have found it difficult to recruit personnel and pay them to perform work on the project without guaranteed funding from the MOD, which pays teams either at completion of the program or in stages. But to receive funding in stages, additional information was required in the proposal. Dodd expects that with more contracting experience and more time to prepare the bid, these difficulties could have been overcome.

Richardson adds that the MOD does not pay in advance and shares that “there is quite a big overhead on the commercial side” to compete in the Grand Challenge. Both Mallinson’s and Richardson’s teams applied for MOD funding. As of May, the teams had not learned whether they had been selected to compete and, if they were chosen, what amount of money they would receive.

The winner of the Grand Challenge will be selected based on performance during the finale. Unlike DARPA’s Grand Challenge, which includes grand prize money in the millions of dollars, the winner of the United Kingdom’s competition will receive the R.J. Mitchell trophy, named in honor of the designer of the Spitfire fighter aircraft that helped U.K. forces achieve victory in the Battle of Britain in World War II. The winning team also may be awarded a contract with the MOD to deploy its system. If all systems fail to receive adequate scores during the finale demonstrations, no winner will be named.

Other participants will receive Commendation Citation Awards for technical excellence or innovation in categories such as subsystem design and overall system concepts. Contracting opportunities may result for teams as they demonstrate their technologies in front of the MOD and other potential customers.

If the Grand Challenge is successful in engaging the U.K. science and technology base and stimulating innovation, the MOD will consider hosting additional challenges.

Web Resources
MOD Grand Challenge:
Competition of Ideas:
DARPA Grand Challenge:
Roke Manor Research Limited:
University of Sheffield: