Flying saucer that can plant explosives or bugs set for frontline
A flying saucer that can sneak into buildings to spot enemy gunmen or plant explosive devices or bugs could be used by British troops on the frontline within a year.
By Thomas Harding Defence Correspondent
14 Aug 2008
The Fenstar flying saucer is considered one of the front runners to win the RJ Mitchell prize
The UFO-like object is among a range of gadgets that have been developed by schools, universities and small companies as part of a Ministry of Defence competition to develop everyday technology to help troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Eleven teams enlisted from the "anorak brigade" have made it to the final week of competition to demonstrate their machines at the Army's purpose-built urban warfare town in Copehill Down, Salisbury Plain.
The Fenstar flying saucer is considered one of the front runners to win the RJ Mitchell prize - named after the Spitfire's inventor - next Tuesday.
Without any external blades and using a two stroke petrol engine, the unmanned aerial vehicle can enter a building either through a window or door and send back high-quality images on its video camera feed.
With efforts being made to make an electric engine that generates little noise, the Fenstar's inventors, hope it could be quiet enough to snoop into rooms and plant listening devices without being seen or heard. Similarly it could also plant explosive devices to kill the enemy.
Controlled using a Playstation joystick the 20kg (44lbs) machine is designed to be easily handled by soldiers and is equipped with an infra-red camera, laser scanners and has a top speed of 40mph.
It can operate autonomously after being given "way points" on its GPS system and can hover or land at will.
The Fenstar was built by Team MIRA, that includes students from Warwick University and the Royal Grammar School Guildford, who have already developed a Frisbee like device that weighs just a few ounces.
The public may soon be confronted by flying saucers over cathedral spires as surveyors consider using the device to spots for cracks or erosion on high or inaccessible buildings.
Similarly it could drop buoyancy aides to struggling swimmers or mobile phones to stranded climbers. Discussions are already underway with geologists to see if it could be used to hover over steep rock faces to examine strata.
Other technology devices at the competition include mini-buggies that are equipped with cameras and can move at 40mph or sit at night near a cross-roads spying on terrorists planting bombs.
Camera technology is also being deployed onto model aircraft or helicopters that can tell the difference between children and adults or a gunman and a cameraman.
The Grand Challenge idea was developed by the former procurement minister Lord Drayson who wanted to get "box-room inventors" to see if high street technology could be used on the battlefield.
The MoD invested £4.5 million in the project last year and the return on the money had been "enormous", said Prof Phil Sutton, the MoD's head of science and technology strategy.
"Britain has a strong and rich history of inventors and innovators and they do work extremely well under the pressure of a challenge," he said. "We now need to put these ideas to good use."
Major Phil Nathan, an infantry officer who has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said: "Aircraft that can look over walls or into compounds in Afghanistan will prove a real asset to the troops. Your situational awareness is drastically reduced in Afghanistan so anything that can get above it or see around corners could be a major life saver."