As the bus comes to the end of a mud-caked road on the outskirts of Copehill Down, we begin to see the first signs that something’s not quite right: windows are boarded up and burned out cars litter the landscape. This village’s pub and BP petrol station never open and fairy lights are in short supply.
This is not your average sleepy English village: Salisbury Plain’s Copehill Down, established in 1989, is an urban warfare training facility for the Ministry of Defence. For the past month, the British Army has been using it for the Autonomous Warrior Experiment (AWE): a live trial of emerging military technologies and tools.
Over the past weeks, autonomous vehicles, grenades with “eyes” and tanks decked out with HD cameras have been trialled in reconnaissance and surveillance, last-mile logistics and urban warfare exercises by the world’s most demanding testers.
A press trip to the village hosted by the MoD showcased four distinct zones: each packed with vendors and products. It’s busy and potential buyers are crowding round the devices on show, like the ThrowBot.
Developed by US-based Recon Robotics the ThrowBot is designed to be tossed into a building like a grenade, it’s operated using a handheld device with a colour display.
Corporal Donnelly was assigned the ThrowBot during the test and said it had proved robust, functioning well no matter how many windows he put it through or concrete walls it bounced off. The Bot comes with a distraction device of five charges that emit a bang at 140 decibels, it can also be set to emit a 170 dB distraction bang.
To put that into context a thunderclap is 120 dB, at around 150 dB your eardrums rupture; being in close proximity to a bang of 170 dB will deafen you for life. As a distraction it certainly can be heard.
Corporal Donnelly said he found it “massively useful over the last three weeks. You set off the bang which gives you that split second while the enemy are looking the opposite way, for you to gain entry; gain initiative.”
Using the camera on the bot he can see the position of the enemy in the house, allowing him to plan an entry with the added bonus of a prepared distraction.
He used it against his fellow soldiers in the live test and “it made them jump out of their skin a little bit.” They thought the room was been breached from the other side and were completely caught off-guard.
Copehill Down: Tank Eyes
One particular demonstration showcased simple innovation at a low cost.
Royal Tank Regiment Lieutenant Quant walked us through the changes they had made to a Challenger 2 tank. “We were given £10,000 from the army innovation team and we were told to innovate, so that’s what we did.”
The Challenger 2 was designed to hold the eastern European front, not for urban combat. In a close quarter urban environment a tank has a lot of blind spots.
The team knew what they wanted: they kitted it out with an array of cameras along the sides and placed a 360 degree HD camera on the turret to provide all round situational awareness. They attached one camera to the end of the gun barrel; a simple, but effective trick: if the tank comes to an intersection, simply rolling forward could invite an RPG into the side. Instead they move forward a bit so the barrel pokes out allowing the camera to reveal what’s on either side.
“It’s a lot more friendly than asking ‘guardsman so and so’ to poke his head around the corner and risk it getting shot off,” Lieutenant Quant says.
While all the cameras feed into the tank itself so the commander can view them, a set of screens have also been placed at the back of the tank.
This is done so that: “When your infantry section is dismounted and taking cover behind this vehicle, their world does not shrink to the ten feet behind this wagon.”
“More often or than not… if we are pushing down a street and they are asked to break into a building, because they have had their faces in the exhausts for the last ten minutes, what they will do is peel off and kick the door into the wrong building.”
It’s not just British military milling around in uniform, we counted military personnel from Spain, Italy, USA and Japan to name a few.
This puts an extra element of pressure on the vendors and product testers: it’s one thing to be quizzed by tech journalists, its quite another to be asked questions by someone who will end up in a situation where their life will require your technology to do exactly what it says on the box. Industry supplied the tech and training for the experiment, but it was UK military personnel who used it in the field.
“It really saved our lives” one UK soldier informed a gathering of troops from across the world, he had been using a recon drone to scan for enemy positions in the field.
The questions were quick and frank: “Won’t they just follow it back to your position?”
He says they thought of this as well, so they used a wide route to bring it home after a reconnaissance of the area. He also pointed out how they used it as a distraction, fly over and then bring it down on the opposite hill to you, let the enemy think you are in that direction.
Colonel Peter Rowell, executive in charge of the experiment, told journalists that they wanted to give the opportunity for “industry to bring their engineers, to spend a good amount of time with real soldiers in a real environment doing very realistic missions.”
One of the biggest challenges he says he faced in organising the event is getting people to realise that you can build “commercial constructs that allow real collaboration between different industry partners and between the users as well.”
“Different industry partners have worked together to fuse their products and combine what it is they are offering to the military. When you have got people coding for each other and working out how one can integrate its information feed into another and be translated by that machine, that to me is a real testament to the trust and team effort we have created.”
Trade Bodies for Metal
Replace flesh with steel is a common phase around the village: but despite all the ruggedised technology on display, cost reduction is also a focus.
For an army wanting to get supplies across the last mile of a battlefield, you need a driver for the truck, and because you don’t want them to be an easy target, you send extra people with guns to protect supplies and personnel.
With the average cost of training a British soldier being around £80,000, losing an AI-driven truck that didn’t need accompanying protection to an RPG looks like it may soon be a significant cost-saving for the MoD.
It’s this exact scenario that the UK government’s last mile resupply programme is all about. Equipping units with a vehicle that can be sent unmanned into hostile territory to resupply entrenched combat units.
Autonomous Viking UGV
One such proposed vehicle is the Viking Multirole UGV Platform. The Viking is a hybrid platform developed by engineering enterprise Mira in conjunction with the Governments Defence Science and Technology Laboratory.
Essentially the Viking is 6×6 two tonne robot that can be set complete delivery objectives, or can be controlled much the same a remote control car.
The vehicle is built with an integrated AI-based autonomous system that allows it to adapt its terrain as it moves to its marked destination.
Using object recognition and advanced terrain perception developed by Mira, the vehicle will change routes to move around obstacles like a burned out car.
Viking is able to carry 600kg of supplies across a distance of over 200 kilometres at a top speed of 40mph. Not only can it be directed to a certain location, but units in the field can request supplies directly from the vehicle via a hand-held terminal.
Colonel Rowell commented: “The range and capacity of some of these systems is so great that we now have the opportunity to rethink completely how we do tactical level resupply missions.”
This Viking is one of the few truly autonomous vehicles on display and it challenges what people probably think of when they think of the military and autonomous vehicles: to quote one journalist in conversation with an MoD spokesperson: “Show me the Terminator!”
It’s probably a good reflection of the thought process of the broader public when AI and military is mentioned in the same sentence. But for the Army, cost and risk reduction is the name of the game. Anything that makes logistics more robust and surveillance less likely to get your head shot off is a winner and, like other industries, they are turning to automation to do it.