Jun 26th 2017

Lifesaver: Unmanned Systems Removal of Land Mines

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There are an estimated 110 million landmines in the ground. Originally planted as weapons and concentrated in many of the world’s most war-torn nations, landmines more often cause injuries or death among civilians, especially women and children, than to soldiers. About 26,000 people a year, or 70 per day, are killed by landmines. Engineers and designers have been developing unmanned systems to efficiently neutralize landmines to prevent life-threatening injuries.

Slow and Dangerous Work

In the past, people looking to clear landmines have relied on metal detectors or animals like dogs or rats to detect landmines. But physically clearing them usually involves trying to disarm them or, more often, safely detonating them. It’s slow and dangerous work — an average of two people are injured, and one killed, for every 5,000 landmines cleared, according to the United Nations.

Flickr credit:
Landmine Warning Sign (Kyle Simourd)

Since the 1990s, militaries seeking to move across minefields have relied upon heavy, tank-like devices to clear landmines. These are among the most popular techniques even for humanitarian purposes because they are hardy, can work quickly, and can withstand the blast. But these devices have a big limitation: they require a driver.

Unmanned Systems

More recently, some companies have moved towards unmanned systems operated by remote control. Many of them are equipped with metal detectors or other techniques to identify mines, and various attachments at the front (flail arm, tiller) to detonate the mines once they’re found.

The D-3, created by the Swiss nonprofit Digger Foundation, has the rototiller front and armored body of other vehicles and can be remotely operated from more than 1,000 feet away. Previous iterations of the D-3 have cleared mines in North and South Sudan. Another, the Prime Tech PT-300 D:Mine is slightly smaller but can be remotely operated from nearly two miles away. It has been used in 10 countries, including Colombia, where a brutal civil war left more than 11,000 people killed or injured by landmines. The tractor-like LOCOSTRA is small and agile, making it less expensive than similar models. It can be operated from a maximum of 650 feet away. It’s been tested in Jordan, where most landmines had been planted during Arab–Israeli conflicts in 1948 and 1967. The Bozena looks more like a lawnmower than a demining machine. It moves on wheels (unlike other models that use tracks, as tanks do) and can be operated from three miles away. More than 80 units are being used in two dozen countries all over the world, by military and humanitarian efforts alike.

Northrop Grumman Demonstrates the Operational Utility and Versatility of the AQS-24B Mine Hunting System at the UK's Unmanned Warrior Exercise (credit: Northrop Grumman)
AQS-24B Mine Hunting System (Northrop Grumman)

In October 2016, Northrop Grumman successfully demonstrated the unmanned AQS-24B mine hunting system in Scotland, furthering its role in unmanned minesweeping technologies in the air, on the surface, and underground.

Future Techniques

In the future, landmines may be removed by completely autonomous devices. Afghan-born designer Massoud Hassani has come up with a drone-based mine-clearing device. It contains GPS to map the mines at a distance, keeping the device itself intact. The project isn’t yet in the field (although it received more than double its goal funding on Kickstarter) but it would presumably be used in Hassani’s native Afghanistan and beyond.

Some engineers are looking at radar that can penetrate into the ground and deactivate mines so that they can safely be dug up and destroyed. Others are turning their attention to autonomously neutralizing water-based mines, which can explode due to the vibrations of a nearby ship, regardless of it being a military or civilian vehicle. The U.S. and Israeli militaries have been working on autonomous or remote-controlled boats for several years.

New, innovative techniques to autonomously clear mines could mean a safer future for thousands of operators and civilians alike. For residents of the world’s most war-torn nations, peace may finally be peaceful after all.

Want to innovate new ways to detect and clear landmines? Consider a career with Northrop Grumman.

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