Drones and robots trialled for chemical detection use
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Project Minerva is developing drones and robots to allow remote detection of hazardous chemicals © Crown copyright 2018

Trials of drones weighing less than a bar of soap and robots that can climb stairs have taken place at Gloucestershire Fire Service College, as part of MoD and Home Office backed Project Minerva.

The project aims to reduce the risk to emergency services and front-line troops attending incidents or operations involving hazardous chemical or biological materials. The recent trial tested concept drones and robots in simulated contaminated scenarios in both UK homeland and battlefield environments and compared their speed and accuracy against that of human response teams supported by specialist Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) scientists, the military, police and fire services.

DSTL leads the project, which is funded jointly by the Ministry of Defence science and technology portfolio and the Home Office and contracted through the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) with funding from Defence Science and Technology (DST). Project Minerva has received more than £3 million in joint funding over two years, and aims to bring designs from concept to reality in an accelerated timeframe. The trails involved the winning concepts for phase two of the project. The winners received a total of just over £1.6 million in total funding and were as follows:

  • BMT Defence Services (with Rescue Global, Herriot Watt and Edinburgh Universities), with Red Alert, unmanned aerial vehicles which have gas-sensing technology and 2D-and-3D mapping and modelling, all mounted on commercially-available drones to allow upgrades as drone technology evolves.

  • Horiba MIRA, with a small purpose-designed ground robot, which can deploy on decontamination missions, climb stairs and ‘read’ or recognise hazardous chemical signs and symbols, exploiting neural network technology.

  • Loughborough University (with Swarm Systems and Createc) with SceneSEARCH – a pocket-sized nano-drone – weighing in at less than 250g which has gas sensors and video and thermal imaging capability.

  • Snake Eyes, by Autonomous Devices Limited and Pendar, a hybrid air and ground vehicle optimised for confined spaces which can relay 3D images of a space and detect chemical agents using a compact laser system.

Peter Stockel, DSTL’s autonomy lead, said: “These two weeks of trials see the culmination of more than 18 months of work to realise an exciting vision, which could see robots and humans working together in demanding situations and potentially save lives when dealing with incidents involving hazardous substances. In this ‘technology exploration’, we’ve been working with industry and academia to rapidly advance robotic and autonomous solutions to enhance our response options and tools for the near future.

“With continued involvement across Government, and demonstration with the user community, we aim to mature this emergent capability to test the ‘art of the possible’ and accelerate this into the hands of the prospective users for further operational evaluation, both for MOD and the Home Office.”


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