Surveillance robots that look like insects, robots that crawl like spiders up walls, and autonomous helicopters were all amongst the robots competing in the Ministry of Defence's Grand Challenge competition.

The competition took place at the MoD's urban combat training village on Salisbury Plain where 11 teams trialled their robots against hidden threats including snipers.

The overall winner was Team Stellar from Cranfield University with Saturn (Sensing & Autonomous Tactical Urban Reconnaissance Network), which comprised two unmanned aerial vehicles and one ground vehicle.

A control station that collated information from all three vehicles was able to identify the most "threats" in a mock urban battlefield scenario.

The most innovative solution was Team Swarm, which is such a good idea that the Americans are thinking of nicking it.

But three "swarms" were showcased.

A company called Mindsheet fielded a fleet of mini-buggies, Locust a squadron of flying robots, and then Swarm Systems Ltd sent up a flock of eight small quad-rotor helicopters, called Owls.

"The principle advantage is robustness", Stephen Crampton of Swarm Systems told The Guardian.

"If eight vehicles go out and two are lost, then the other six can reform to carry out the whole task."

Swarm Systems, with the help of one Professor Owen Holland of the University of Essex, is now working on the idea of an UltraSwarm.

This is a flying cluster in which multiple units can combine their computing power.

But, in the meantime, we could look to the skies and see a swarm of Owls as a commercial version of the Owl swarm will be marketed next year.

The possible applications include the military as well as police work, environmental monitoring and emergency search and rescue.

But it is the military where these robots will have the biggest impact, says Crampton: "The UK defence industry now has a new capability that can be taken to the front line", says Crampton.

"In just over five years, the swarms of robots in the British armed forces will outnumber the soldiers."