Britain looks to robot dragonflies and lasers for future defense

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Hyper-reality training tech developed by Close Air Solutions(Credit: MOD/Close Air Solutions)

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Britain's Ministry of Defence (MoD) has provided a glimpse of the future of war by unveiling plans that include the development of robotic dragonflies called "Skeeters," laser weapons, and virtual reality helmets. Part of a new defense innovation initiative designed to speed the transition of new systems from the lab to the battlefield, the Innovation and Research Insights Unit (IRIS) is intended to identify emerging technologies and determine their potential military impact.

Among a number of projects currentlyunder consideration, Skeeter is a tiny Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) from Oxford-based Animal Dynamics. Like TechJect's micro UAV design, it's based on the dragonfly and is designed to use cutting-edge micro-engineering for reconnaissance in urban environments. It has embedded electronics in a composite structure and flies by flapping its four wings in a very insect-like manner as it avoids obstacles at high speed.

Another robotic project is the development of robots and flying drones that can seek out particular chemicals in an area without exposing humans to danger.

On the simulator side, there's a "hyper-reality" helmet by Close Air Solutions in Ripon that helps soldiers to train in calling in airstrikes in a virtual environment. Then there's a demonstrator to show the ability of the next generation of laser weapons to deal with aerial threats, such as missiles, drones, and warplanes.

One thing on the fringe is the Quantum Gravimeter from the University of Birmingham. This uses the quantum effect of extremely cold atoms in combination with paired gravimeters to make very precise measurements of the Earth's local gravitational field with high resistance to external noise sources. According to the MoD, this will allow soldiers to seek out enemy tunnels or hunt for survivors in disaster areas in minutes instead of weeks.

All of this is part of the £800 million (US$1 billion) IRIS initiative, which is designed to change the way Britain handles new defense technologies by adopting a more "dragon's den" approach where individuals and companies pitch ideas that involve risk, yet are worth fast tracking through a "defense and security accelerator," which is Civil Service speak for coming up with new ways for government and business to develop new technologies to preserve the country's defense edge while keeping the MoD a bit more fiscally responsible than it's been in recent years..

The MoD says that the initiative will go into a full launch next year that will involve issuing a prospectus and an exhibition to explain the new Innovation Fund.

"This new approach will help to keep Britain safe while supporting our economy, with our brightest brains keeping us ahead of our adversaries," says Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. "Backed by a defence budget that will rise every year until the end of the decade, it will ensure that the UK maintains its military advantage in an increasingly dangerous world."

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