Technology

New Chemical Detection Robot Successfully Trialled

Scientists say the robot could drastically reduce the risks to military and counter-terrorism officers when operating in contaminated areas.

A new autonomous robot that can detect and report dangerous chemicals on the battlefield has been unveiled.

The Merlin Robot has been successfully trialled by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), carrying out chemical reconnaissance tasks over areas covering up to 10,000sqm.

The prototype has been developed by Horiba-MIRA, with funding from the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and Home Office.

DSTL's project technical lead Andy Martin said the trial had demonstrated the technology's "clear potential to make the job of military and emergency services users safer", adding it has "significant potential in a number of fields".

"The user of the robot would figure the operation by defining an area on a map and as the robot sets off with no prior knowledge of that area," Mr Martin told Forces News.

He explained that through a combination of machine learning, optical sensing and other factors, the robot is then able to "detect" objects on the ground and make its own course.

"It has an artificial intelligence which enables it to find objects that it's been trained for," he said.

The trial tested the robot's autonomous systems to tackle hazard assessment in areas contaminated with chemical agents.

Under Project Servitus, it was a follow-on from previous work conducted as part of Project Minerva.

The latest exercise saw an off-the-shelf chemical vapour sensor mounted to the Merlin, plus developed artificial intelligence (AI)-based object recognition and search and detection techniques.

Personnel from 27 Squadron used a tablet to operate the Merlin and monitor its progress (Picture: DSTL).

The operationally-realistic trial tested different autonomous behaviours for search and mapping operations and was undertaken alongside specialist Counter Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (C-CBRN) operators from 27 Squadron RAF Regiment at RAF Honington.

The personnel were provided with basic training on the Merlin and given the opportunity to operate it, set up missions, monitor progress and re-task it as required.

Non-toxic chemical simulants were sprayed on the ground and both military reconnaissance teams and the robot searched the areas to map the chemicals and plot clean routes.

A spokesperson from 27 Squadron said the "system has a lot of potential" and testing personnel against the robot "was a good benchmark".

"Throughout the trial the embedded AI was pushed to the limits of object and obstacle recognition and successfully demonstrated its utility within a cluttered environment," the spokesperson said.

Currently, chemical reconnaissance is carried out by specialist personnel on foot or in specially modified vehicles, and according to DSTL, it is a "dangerous and laborious task requiring high levels of specialist training".

The defence laboratory said the Merlin allows the burden to be shared between human and machine for defence and security personnel dealing with hazardous scenes.

Cover image: The Merlin Robot (Picture: DSTL).