UK defence scientists develop robot to autonomously detect and map toxic chemicals

14th January 2021 By: Rebecca Campbell - Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor

The UK Ministry of Defence’s (MoD’s) Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) has developed a prototype of a robot that can autonomously detect, report and map dangerous chemicals spread over large areas. Designated the Merlin, the robot was developed in partnership with independent UK vehicle engineering and development company HORIBA MIRA.

The development of the Merlin was jointly funded by the MoD and the UK Home Office (interior ministry) because of its dual military and civilian applications (chemical defence and dealing with major chemical accidents). The development of the robot was started under a project named Minerva and the operational trials that tested the prototype were conducted as part of the subsequent Project Servitus.

The Merlin is a small tracked robot which is equipped with an artificial intelligence-based object recognition and search and detection system. For the trials, it was fitted with an off-the-shelf chemical vapour sensor. 

Hitherto, what the military calls chemical reconnaissance, whether conducted in a military or civilian context, had to be carried out by highly trained specialist personnel in protective clothing. The task was both laborious and dangerous. 

The trial was operationally realistic, involving the exploration of an area, the avoidance of obstacles and the mapping of chemical contamination. The target substances were non-toxic chemical simulants which had been sprayed on the ground. The Merlin successfully operated over test areas that extended up to 10 000 m2 and had no trouble operating for several hours at a time. Personnel were able to monitor and manage the process from what would have been a safe distance, had the chemicals been dangerous. 

“Project Servitus has demonstrated the clear potential to make the job of military and emergency services users safer, more effective and future looking,” pointed out DSTL project technical lead Andy Martin. “The technology has significant potential in a number of fields, and work to explore the exploitation pathways within [chemical, biological and radiological defence] and elsewhere is well underway.”

The human-machine interface for the robot is tablet-based. Operators from 27 Squadron, Royal Air Force Regiment, a counter-chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear warfare unit, participated in the trials and were given basic training on the Merlin, before operating it, setting-up its missions, re-tasking it and monitoring its progress. They also acted as a ‘control’ for the trials by undertaking the same search and mapping tasks as the robot.

“It was a hugely interesting project to be part of within the early development stages, and it was a pleasure to work alongside the [HORIBA] MIRA and DSTL personnel who were very engaged, approachable and keen to listen to our observations and experience,” stated a member of 27 Squadron, whose name was not released. “The system has a lot of potential and testing our personnel against the AI of the robot was a good benchmark.”

“Building on Project Minerva, Servitus is another exemplar of cross-department and industry collaboration, with close working between government technical experts, industry and the military user community,” highlighted Martin. “It has been highly successful because of that.”