Ensuring that cutting-edge equipment is at the disposal of soldiers is essential to the British Army’s success.
It is for this reason that military advisers work alongside scientists and engineers at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to design, build and test items that swing the balance of power in the UK’s favour.
At the lab’s Fort Halstead base, these experts keep the Service’s kit and gadgets ahead of the technological curve.
One of the latest prototypes is an ingenious piece of machinery that combines landscape gardening with a potentially life-saving bomb disposal robot:
It’s a commercial leaf blower strapped to a conventional Wheelbarrow,” explained military adviser Major Chris Yates, Royal Logistic Corps.
Major Yates revealed why it was so desirable for the hi-tech hybrid to produce a rush of air:
This kit significantly reduces the time it takes to render an improvised explosive device safe,” he said.
Without it, the operator has to clear the device by hand and there have been several deaths among military personnel while doing that.
Using knowledge of the terrain in Helmand province and acting on feedback from recent operational tours - not to mention his own background in explosive ordnance disposal - the serviceman has been able to ensure the new device does its job.
Explaining the reasons for altering the Wheelbarrow’s tried-and-tested design, Martin Slater, the principal engineer, said:
The whole problem with an IED is that it is buried.
The people here thought ‘what can we do to prevent someone having to use their hands to find devices?’ and they came up with this.
It’s a straightforward idea and simply a case of buying a leaf blower off-the-shelf then integrating it onto the current system.
Now the Wheelbarrow can do its job while reducing the risk to operators.
A number of these modified devices are now being used by British Armed Forces personnel on Operation HERRICK.
Another example of the brains at Dstl working with military advisers to produce game-changing systems and equipment came with Project Sledge.
A request was sent from Afghanistan to reduce the weight of the 3.5-kilogram improved disruptor - kit that disarms explosives before freely recoiling away from its target.
Thanks to tactical and doctrinal information from subject matter experts, Dstl staff realised that transportation needs must be factored into any redesign:
The disruptor was stainless steel but now Sledge is made of titanium and weighs 1.8 kilograms,” Mr Slater explained.
We knew that if we fired and the Sledge landed outside of a cleared area, soldiers would also have to clear that new area.
The device needed to be transported on a Dragon Runner bomb disposal robot but the buggy’s chassis was too light to carry the new design so the team also had to ensure the arm that holds the metal object in place would be strong enough to meet the demand.
A modular clip-on system was soon created, complete with counter-balances and gizmos that would not look out of place in a sci-fi blockbuster:
To reduce the recoil we have a makeshift parachute and there’s a small sandbag to balance the vehicle,” added Mr Slater, whose design is now being used by numerous teams across Helmand.
Describing the off-the-wall thought process required to dream up such groundbreaking machines, the engineer said:
We have to ask whether ideas will interfere with things that soldiers currently do; it’s a case of looking at the bigger picture.
There’s a level of knowledge already in Dstl to utilise, but the military adviser is on hand to work alongside engineers.
The parachute idea was a bit whacky and immature but we’re used to that sort of thing. We have the simple attitude of ‘if it works, it works’.
Unlike in the commercial world, our inventions are not about making money - they’re about making a difference and saving lives.
Within the group of military advisers are ex-Armed Forces personnel who measure soldiers’ performance in the field to gauge if changes in approach or kit could help them.
Scott Bell, an ex-Warrant Officer Class 1 with 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland, leads the security and operations team:
We are heavily involved with the soldiers at the Infantry Training Development Unit as they are the guys on the ground,” he revealed.
Recently on Brecon we’ve been taking measurements such as time spent in contact or time taken by a platoon commander to give orders.
We are also interested in where performance drops off. It could be that after five days without rest, guys are falling asleep when they should be awake or they’re taking longer to make calls.
Such data is fed back to aid decisions on how best to assist troops.
A self-generated idea came to the team in the form of a laser-guided unmanned vehicle - based on the design of an agricultural tractor - to carry soldiers’ kit while on patrol:
We were looking at reducing the dismounted burden and worked with Boeing on an assisted carriage prototype,” said Duncan Stewart, a land battlespace systems analyst at the lab.
However, Boeing trialled it on a mission and found it wasn’t really up to the task of following dismounted soldiers.
Nevertheless, Dstl does not see negative results as failures; all evidence adds to the group’s ever-widening military and technical knowledge:
This particular trial was only ever a demo project looking for examples of how a vehicle might be used,” said Mr Stewart.
I am sure at some point we will have autonomous vehicles working with servicemen and women.
From driverless kit carriers to revolutionary concepts, the experience and knowledge of military advisers is crucial in the mission to produce next-generation technical innovations.
Their input ensures that impressive imagination is translated into a tangible and meaningful boost to front line operations for the British Army.
_This article is taken from the January 2012 edition of SOLDIER - Magazine of the British Army.