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updated 5/2/2008 5:27:40 PM ET 2008-05-02T21:27:40

Emotion-detecting robot cars will face off against eavesdropping flying saucers in the English countryside later this year, as scientists and school children compete with their designs for the next generation of military equipment.

It's the British Ministry of Defense's first ever "Grand Challenge" — aimed at encouraging scientists, inventors and academics to turn ideas into machines for army use in urban environments.

It gave six finalists funding to build prototypes of their mini-helicopters and disc-shaped flying robots fitted with heat and motion sensors that can be controlled remotely from a bunker. And the finalists, who each received $600,000, came to London this week to display their models.

"This project has really allowed us to broaden out our vision and look at what other work is being done out there in our field," said Norman Gregory, business manager for the Silicon Valley Group PLC, a small research company in southeast Britain.

His company teamed up with the Bruton School for Girls in Somerset to build an unmanned buggy that can analyze gunmen's movements to determine whether they are angry or nervous.

Slideshow: Banking on robots "We are a small company and would not have been able to put together a consortium to develop such a sophisticated system without this competition. The government made it clear it wanted consortiums to get schools involved, and the Bruton school already ran its own robot design competitions, so we asked them if they wanted to have a look at our research," Gregory said.

Another group, Swarm Systems Ltd., has built a set of tiny helicopters that fly in formation into a village, recording images and audio tracks to beam back to headquarters.

Finalists will take part in a mock battle in August in Copehill Down, a village that was modeled on an East German one when it was built for military training during the Cold War. Copehill Down is near Stonehenge, about 95 miles from London.

The contestants will have their machines search for pretend gunmen and mock bombs, earning points for each find and losing points for hitting civilians or transmitting data too slowly.

The winner gets a trophy made from recycled metal recovered from a WWII fighter jet. The best designs also will get financial backing from Britain's defense ministry.

The U.S. government-funded Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency runs a similar annual competition.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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