The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) yesterday opened its "Grand Challenge", an inventors' competition designed "to create a system with a high degree of autonomy that can detect, identify, monitor, and report a comprehensive range of military threats in an urban environment".
As if this wasn't difficult enough, "its use should not alert the enemy as to the proximity of friendly troops; it should have a low visual and acoustic signature and it should either exhibit good resistance to countermeasures or be an easily replaceable consumable item".
The winner of the contest will receive a valuable
barrel of pork contract to develop the system, and also the new "R J Mitchell Trophy", named after the designer of the WWII Spitfire fighter.
Defence Procurement Minister Lord Drayson said: "R J Mitchell was an innovator whose bold Spitfire design went on to play a key role...I truly believe the MoD with the cutting edge of British scientists and engineers can capture the spirit of innovation that drove R J Mitchell, and provide a critical capability to the UK Armed Forces."
The MoD also says "the R J Mitchell Trophy [is] suitably relevant given the immense innovation shown by R J Mitchell in developing the Spitfire – initially created as the Supermarine Seaplane to win the Schneider Trophy."
The Schneider Trophy, of course, was set up by a wealthy Frenchman. And Mitchell's most famous Schneider winner, the Supermarine S6b of 1931, was actually refused funding by the British government. It's not clear quite what message the MoD wants to send here; but Grand Challenge entry rules allow contenders to put together entries at their own expense, so perhaps the historical allusions are appropriate.
There is also a separate, more complicated protocol under which a competitor can apply for MoD development funding. The deadline for applications is 15 May in either case. Both funded and unfunded entries will compete in a "grand finale" during summer 2008, to be held in an Army urban-combat training area.
The winning system will be expected to sniff out roadside bombs, rocket-propelled-grenade ambushes, snipers, and suchlike urban-combat threats. It will be expected to answer questions such as: "What waits at the next intersection? What lies round the corner of the next building or concealed in houses or behind rooftop parapets?"
Some military traditionalists might suggest that these are questions that can really only be answered by putting a lot of troops on the ground in the form of surveillance teams, observation posts, intelligence units, and foot patrols. British troops, however, are in short supply at the moment.
In any case, the UK government seems keen to move away from a labour-intensive approach to soldiering and towards a capital-intensive, technology-driven one. This has been illustrated by recent cuts to the infantry and the announcement of £2bn in funds for the FIST wearable-tech project.
The Grand Challenge should make interesting watching, if nothing else. ®