Self-driving tanks, drones and throwable micro-robots: the future of warfare

Normally, supplying tech to the military is a lengthy business, with a lot of hoops to jump through. It's understandable – kit needs to be safe, reliable and well developed before it can be taken into the battlefield – but it means technology tends to move quite slowly.

To speed up the development of new tech, the British Army is holding an annual competition in the style of Dragons' Den or Shark Tank, inviting companies to pitch their most innovative ideas and putting them through rigorous examination and testing to find the ones that will be tough and useful enough to invest in.

Exercise Autonomous Warrior

Each year, the Army Warfighting Experiment (AWE) invites companies of all sizes to throw their ideas into the ring, AWE makes the process much more straightforward, and is open to companies of all sizes, with special funding available for the smallest.

Companies of all sizes are invited to pitch ideas, which are sifted through to sort out the suggestions with the most potential. The chosen companies then pitch their products in person to experts from the British Army, who picked the strongest projects based on their usefulness, level of development and safety.

In the third phase, the army’s trials and development units (TDUs) to verify and validate the equipment, making sure it works as expected and would be suitable for use in battle.

The companies behind the successful projects are invited to join army personnel putting them to the test in realistic situations, and finding out how well they’ll work in the hands of real soldiers.

Exercise Autonomous Warrior invited businesses to submit aerial and land-based vehicles. Image credit: Ministry of Defence © UK Crown copyright 2019

The 2018 AWE competition, Exercise Autonomous Warrior, focused on unmanned aerial and ground vehicles, plus supporting software. 

For Autonomous Warrior, the British Army received 121 applications, which a team of experts whittled down to 104. These businesses were invited to a ‘show and tell’, where 79 products from 49 businesses were chosen for the next stage.

For the final tests, 31 products from 21 companies were tested in the wind, rain and mud of Salisbury Plain in southwest England. The successful products included micro-drones, an augmented reality display, drone-disrupting ‘guns’, and throwable robots for reconnaissance.

Manned-unmanned teaming

This year's competition, Army Warfighting Experiment 19, will focus on manned-unmanned teaming. Companies are invited to submit idea for a remote operated or autonomous wingman for a manned air or land vehicle (such as an Apache helicopter or AJAX light armored vehicle).

“Innovation will count for nothing unless we get great ideas off the drawing board, into production and onto the front line,” said Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson in an event at the Science Museum on March 5.

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced £66 million new funding for the military’s robotics projects. Image credit: Ministry of Defence © UK Crown copyright 2019

Williamson announced that the Army would be investing £66 million (about $86 million, AU$123 million) in new projects: £31 million in unmanned air surveillance systems, £32 million in the new Theseus system, and £12 million on robotic combat vehicles.

“We're not sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike,” he added. “We're seizing opportunities. We're stepping up to the challenge.”

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