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Jan 15, 2008

Britain's Ministry of Defence unveils high-tech armour goo, robotic hand

A ROBOT hand that could defuse bombs and luminous goo that flows around soldiers' moving bodies but hardens against bullets sound like they should have been dreamt up for a James Bond film.
In fact, they are among the fruits of a new innovation program undertaken by Britain’s Ministry of Defence.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) in Harwell, Oxfordshire, west of London, is an initiative that aims to harness British scientific innovation for rapid use on the battlefield. Ministers also hope to temper the MoD's reputation for laborious and costly procurements that arrive in service years after they have ceased to be useful.

The event overnight looked more like a convention for dreadlocked and ponytailed Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts than an MoD event.

Officials say that 15 in every 100 applications are tested and about two are then developed. To date the MoD has given research funding of £5 million through the scheme.

Among the companies to have received funding is d3o Lab, which has developed an "intelligent" liquid polymer that is easily malleable when moved slowly but whose molecules lock together and absorb force when hit by a projectile.

To demonstrate its properties, which have uses in a new generation of helmets and types of body armour, members of the d3o team wrapped the luminous orange goo round their hands and then struck them repeatedly with hammers. "The way that the material responds to your body movements, you get a duality of flexibility and protection," Floria Antolini said.

Other innovations on show included the "Little Owl", a lightweight drone that its developers hope will carry 20kg of surveillance equipment and power itself on solar energy for up to three months. The project has received £44,000 of funding for development.

Intelligent Textiles received £49,500 to help it to develop an army uniform that conducts electricity and computer data through internally woven "conductive yarns". It allows troops to attach electrical equipment to powerpoints on their uniform, and to run internal heaters to keep them warm. The uniform runs off a central battery pack.

The MoD believes that it will remove 2kg from the weight of equipment for troops in combat and is also being considered by the Canadian military. Even if the material is pierced, officials claim, it will still conduct electricity around the damaged area without loss of power.

Crib Gogh, which makes extreme survival equipment, has already developed a durable solar-panel mat that folds into a backpack pouch and delivers enough power to run a computer. It is to be delivered to forward bases in Afghanistan.

Currently the MoD runs small generators at such bases whose fuel costs are 17 times the market price because of transport costs.

The MoD also spends millions of pounds on the purchase and transport of batteries for soldiers who use an average of eight AA batteries a day.

In a corner of the event, Sergeant Alex Simpson, 26, a bomb disposal expert with 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the unit that tackles Taleban roadside bombs, tested a robotic hand developed by the Shadow Robot Company.

The hand mimics the movements of a controller wearing a sensory glove and can be used at a range of hundreds of metres. "Without a shadow of a doubt this could be used in the bomb disposal world," he said, "and it would obviously be a massive leap forward from what we have at the moment."

"Thanks man," said the hand's dreadlocked designer, Rich Walker, 39, a self-confessed Dungeons and Dragons fan. The company is also developing robotic limbs for use in radioactive environments. He expects the hand to be picking apart bombs on the battlefield within two years.

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