Mind the Gap: The UK Military project providing funding for Innovation in Drones
Nothing gets us more excited at Coptrz than seeing drones used in new and innovative ways, particularly where businesses in the industry are granted funding to work on research and development projects. Government funding for drone innovation is essential in moving the UK further towards its goal of being a world-leader in the drone industry, and the latest announcement of funding for drone innovation in the military is a very welcome one.
In August 2020, the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) has announced that they have awarded several contracts amounting to a total of £1.3m to allow small-medium sized firms to develop semi-autonomous reconnaissance and drone survey systems. The systems have the aim of helping ground troops to safely and stealthily move into enemy territory, when faced with water obstacles including rivers.
In this article, we take a look at the specification and aims of the project, as well as the role drones and drone mapping software can play in helping the armed forces.
If you work for a Public Safety organisation and are interested in adopting drone technology into your operations, we can help. We supply the largest range of drone solutions in the UK and work with industry-leaders DJI, Parrot, Flyability and Wingtra to ensure you get the solution that matches your needs and requirements.
If you’re looking at what you can do on leaving the force, you can use your credits on any of our ELCAS approved drone training courses.
Right then, let’s dive into what this project is all about and how the funding is being used to help establish the UK as a drone-industry leader.
What is Mind the Gap?
Mind the Gap: autonomous gap survey crossing was a competition launched by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). The competition sought detailed proposals and ideas from academics, individuals such as sole traders, small businesses, and Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) to create a remote system to survey potential sites for troops to cross, through data collection in relation to river banks.
The Phase 1 competition has the ambitious aim of developing and demonstrating several system demonstrators which could manage some of the most challenging issues of gap crossing surveying.
DASA funds innovative concepts that may lead to an advantage for national security and UK armed forces. As ideas must be ‘exploitable’ they may also lead to a boost to the UK economy. When selecting the ideas for the Mind the Gap project, DASA used their table of technology readiness levels (TRL) – which provides an indication of how innovative the idea is.
All of the successful submissions had have a clear plan to be at TRL Level 5 (Technology basic validation in a relevant environment) by the end of Phase 1, with a clear outline of how the project could advance to TRL 6 (technology model or prototype demonstration in a relevant environment) in Phase 2, and later to a full in-service capabilities.
Colonel Simon Bradley, Assistant Head Manoeuvre Support, Ground Manoeuvre Capability British Army, said:
“We are hugely excited by the benefits the Map the Gap project may realise. The reconnaissance of multiple potential crossing sites at the forward edge of the battle exposes soldiers to significant risk.”
The total funding awarded for Phase 1 of the project is in excess of a million pounds, with an anticipated £2.5 million to be awarded for continuing projects into Phase 2.
Why is the Mind the Gap project necessary?
The Mind the Gap project aims to tackle key issues with safety and stealth in the military. When troops advancing into the territory of the enemy, they need to be able to successfully cross water obstacles such as rivers, steams, bogs and other wet gaps. However, at present the only way to determine where it is safe and convenient to cross such a wet gap, is to send a team reconnaissance troops who are Royal engineers, who must then survey both river banks and assess where it is safe for the ground troops to cross.
The issue is that current methods are both time labour intensive. They use survey equipment, which is quite basic that is manually operated to take height readings, which then allows them to generate a profile of the gap and gather essential characteristics including ground bearing capacity. This data then informs the requirements for crossing.
The main problem with the current methods however, is that troops are exposed to the forward edge of the battlefield, and manual surveying can have a significant impact on stealth taking a significant amount of time and being ‘obvious’ to the enemy. The optimum crossing point may be compromised as the use of unique engineering equipment may be made clear to the enemy, and demonstrate our military’s interest in the specific location for crossing into enemy territory. Furthermore, where the time taken to survey a crossing point can be reduced, many crossing points can be surveyed introducing an element of surprise and deception where multiple points are suitable for crossing.
It can also ‘increase the tempo of the deployable military formation’- according to the competition document.
Colonel Simon Bradley said:
“Replacing and/or augmenting manned reconnaissance with a remote, beyond line-of-sight system will not only reduce the threat to life; it will also offer the ability to survey multiple crossing sites in a far more timely and efficient manner.”
He went on to describe how this may also give the UK military a tactical advantage:
“In turn, this will provide greater choice to ground commanders and more opportunities to out-manoeuvre our opponents. It will be a force multiplier for our next generation bridging systems.”
The means to completely remove the reconnaissance engineers from areas and situations where they are in danger must encompass a wider role than just the reconnaissance of the crossing wet gap itself. Any new system introduced will also account for other factors including the route troops should take into and out of any wet gaps, and areas of rendezvous for troops while waiting to cross, or waiting for others to cross.
The idea is that any proposed new systems will utilise automation and autonomy to determine these factors, as opposed to using the limited personnel available to pilot these systems. As a result, when putting forward their proposals, applicants to the competition were asked to be mindful of how their solution may be controlled and commanded.
The competition brief states:
“The fielded capability may not be as a single system: it may require different sensors to be deployed on various platforms across the battlefield, which means a premium will be placed on proposals where sub-systems could be integrated on alternative platforms in the future.”
The document goes on to describe that any systems in the future will also need to take into account integration with in-service systems of communication, This includes, the MAKEFAST combat engineering software application, which is on the BOWMAN communication system.
Any well-developed solution to these concerns will address the additional elements.
The focus of the current competition is on the specific area of wet gap reconnaissance conducted manually by the military formation that is deployable. But, plans for further areas of development of any innovative technology were to be included in proposals, to give a full view of how the technological ideas could be fully realised.
What challenges must the projects overcome?
The overarching aim of the competition is to find and develop systems capable of gathering measurements that will inform the crossing of any wet gap obstacle.
In order to successfully and comprehensively meet this aim, the competition set out criteria in four ‘challenges’. The proposals submitted had to address at least one of the first two challenges. As it is anticipated that systems will work in collaboration to address all of the challenges, it was not necessary for any single proposal to address all of the challenges. However, when assessing the proposals, those which addressed more of the challenges were preferable.
The challenges are as follows:
To measure the ground bearing capacity of any wet gap obstacle’s far bank, through taking an average of five readings with a tolerance of ±50kPa. This as the primary challenge is of particular importance and interest to DASA.
Technology and systems to generate a bank height profile of the far bank contact zone, including up to 8m inland of the bank edge and 2m below the minimum waterline. Any profile produced should have a minimum vertical tolerance of ±1cm. and horizontal resolution of 10cm.
The third challenge asks for solutions to measure the wet gap width(with a tolerance of ±5cm) between banks, and also the vertical difference between the heights of banks with a tolerance of ±2cm. Any systems introduced must be able to cope with banks that will be up to 300m apart, and systems brought in in the future may be required to measure further than this.
Systems should be able to measure the flow rate of a river locally, and generate a full profile of the riverbed. In the context of the fourth challenge, DASA are interested in river widths up to 300m and water depths of up to 3m. There may also be future requirements for measurement beyond these figures.
What organisations have been awarded funding and will be involved in the project?
Five organisations, all small-medium sized have been awarded funding for Phase 1.
The successful organisations are:
Scytronix – who have proposed using a crossing assessment system that is mountable on a drone. The system will utilise novel low frequency electromagnetic scanning techniques.
Wight Ocean – who have proposed developing an amphibious bottom crawler. The crawler will transit and navigate potential water crossings, gathering close to real-time data which can then be analysed.
Nordic Unmanned AS – proposed demonstrating unmanned aerial systems (UAV) sensors, and data exploitation, and a semi-autonomous capability for engineer reconnaissance.
Digital Concepts Engineering – propose developing an unmanned ground vehicle, alongside a team of drones. The teams will be fitted with a variety of sensors allowing them to gather, aggregate and present data.
Foundry Cube will work in collaboration with Ultrabeam Hydrographic – they have proposed an amphibious and autonomous hydrographic survey vehicle. The vehicle will work in the same fashion as a pedalo, but will use innovative techniques tools alongside Lidar (laser light and measuring reflection) and sonar.
The funding has been split as follows:
Scytronix – £251,900
Wight Ocean – £309,282
Nordic Unmanned AS – £272,656
Digital Concepts Engineering – £331,133
Foundry Cube – £177,789
Are you ready to adopt drone technology into your organisation?
We are excited to see how the project develops, in particular how drones are used in this context. We regularly work with the army, navy, airforce and other defence organisations to find the right drone solutions for their projects. We have a wide variety of commercial drones with differing capabilities, as well as the expertise to understand the aims and scope of your project and the drones that will be suitable.