BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

13 November 2014

BBC Homepage

Local BBC Sites

Neighbouring Sites

Related BBC Sites

Contact Us

Science features

You are in: Manchester > Science > Science features > The real robot wars

Tumbleweed robot helicopter

Ready to roll: Tumbleweed

The real robot wars

'Roboteers, stand by!' Two robots made in Manchester are set to roll into battle in a contest to find the best in UK military technology. But will they end up serving alongside British troops? Or in the Pit of Oblivion? ‘Let the Wars begin!'

Technology is a key battleground for companies hoping to win lucrative contracts with the Armed Forces.

University of Manchester Tumbleweed team

The University of Manchester team

And with British troops frequently operating abroad in towns and villages in Iraq and Afghanistan, remote surveillance is crucial if they're to avoid putting lives at risk.

With this in mind, the Ministry of Defence has set potential suppliers a unique challenge: ‘to develop autonomous aerial and ground vehicles capable of detecting and identifying threats’. In other words, robots.

Now, after months of hard work, the Grand Final has arrived and a team from the University of Manchester is ready go to war this weekend on Salisbury Plain.


The team has developed two machines under the name ‘Tumbleweed’; one that rolls along the ground and another that takes off and hovers like a helicopter.

Tumbleweed robot helicopter

Powered by mobile phone batteries, their ‘eye in the sky’ goes airbone using a unique array of six helicopter rotors. With a flying time of 20 mins, it is designed to seek out roadside bombs, weapons and armed militia and beam images back to base. It’s even small enough to fly through doorways.

It’s completely autonomous which means it doesn’t need to be remote controlled. And it’s cheap enough to be expendable.

Team leader Dr Bill Crowther said that while it usually takes several years and millions of pounds to develop these types of autonomous robots, the Tumbleweed helicopter has been developed in Manchester in less than a year.

Tumbleweed land rover

Rover: Tumbleweed's ground robot

“A key challenge is making the technology sufficiently autonomous that it does not require high levels of skill and attention to operate it,” he said.

“Current systems often take two or three specially trained soldiers to operate them and can’t be used by front line troops where the information is most needed.”

Dr Crowther added that with the development of a structural shell, the Tumbleweed helicopter would even be able to roll along the ground and up walls! It will also be able to land and take off and be able to ‘perch and stare’ from suitable urban structures.

Also being put through its paces will be Tumbleweed’s ground vehicle which is designed to navigate cluttered urban environments with an onboard surveillance camera.


This weekend, the two robots will be called into action at Copehill Down army training centre in Wiltshire where they will be required to tackle an array of challenged tasks.

Dr Brian Crowther with Tumbleweed robot

Dr Brian Crowther

Around a dozen robots will be put through their paces during the Grand Final, with around ten people from the Tumbleweed team having travelled to Wiltshire for the contest.
The winner of the competition will win the R J Mitchell Trophy, named after the ‘father of the Spitfire’ WWII fighter plane, and also further funding from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to refine their design.

last updated: 14/08/2008 at 16:22
created: 14/08/2008

You are in: Manchester > Science > Science features > The real robot wars

[an error occurred while processing this directive]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy