Challenging Urban Environments: The Prospect of using Animal Detection Systems in Buildings

By Mr. Stanislav Damjanovic & Mr. Ian Robb, Advisors, Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD)

The urban environment of modern warfare presents a host of complex challenges for mine action, such as large-scale population movements, damage to critical infrastructure, and often rapidly changing security situations. These challenges can be compounded by the technical complexity of the devices used in the conflict, particularly those of an improvised nature, and can be further complicated by fragmented and protracted conflicts between a multiplicity of state and non-state actors. In this context, traditional mine action approaches to address the threat of explosive hazards have been challenged. While there are examples of existing mine action activities that have been applied to manage EO threats in urban areas, much of mine action to date has taken place in primarily rural settings. Although, the mine action responses undertaken in towns and cities provide some foundation for reference, the sheer scale and nature of contamination in urban areas as a result of recent conflicts presents new challenges which the sector must address in order to fulfil humanitarian objectives.

In the immediate aftermath of an urban conflict, mine action will often be deploy as a first response to facilitate emergency humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation of critical infrastructure, and the safe return of displaced populations. In order to do so, mine action tasking authorities and mine action organizations must identify and locate the EO threat that must be addressed and coordinate with other humanitarian partners to prioritize operations in accordance with the broader humanitarian response. The EO threat may consist of conventional unexploded ordnance such as grenades, mortars, rockets, and artillery. It may be a threat that consists of a range of victim-operated and complex improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In some contexts, the threat may include a mix of both conventional and improvised EO. While coordination and planning for these different scenarios will seek to enable shared humanitarian objectives, the approaches to the environment, work processes for operations, competencies for mine action operators, and reporting standards will differ significantly based on the specific threat and context. The sheer scale of known or suspected EO will often exceed the mine action capacity available on the ground. Prioritization of the highest impact activities is critical to ensure the maximum impact on human security and humanitarian objectives. A good Threat Analysis lays the foundation for decision-making about which activities should be employed to save the most lives by tailoring responses to the type and density of contamination, as well as humanitarian needs.

The key to success is the use of a Threat Analysis to tailor and coordinate the most impactful responses in urban contexts.

In post-conflict responses, it is most effective to invest emergency response resources in mitigating immediate threats to the population as quickly as possible. An emergency response may employ a combination of Explosive Ordinance Risk Education (EORE) to allow the population to avoid EO threats in circumstances where clearance would be time-consuming and perhaps not immediately available, as well as threat reduction through rapid search and destruction efforts (scanning an area for items with rapid response search and disposal teams) prior to full systematic clearance. These activities would not result in declaring an area free from explosive ordnance but aim to provide the highest lifesaving impact over the short term, especially when populations are moving extensively and in large numbers. Recording of these activities must be clear and not confused with full clearance, so that follow-up efforts will not leave behind contamination that may not have been cleared as a result of less comprehensive rapid search techniques

In other scenarios, a focus on full-scale urban land release which enables reconstruction and invests more heavily in a combination of systematic and targeted clearance, will be the most appropriate response. In cases where there are large population movements, both types of response are likely to be employed in tandem. The key to success is the use of a Threat Analysis to tailor and coordinate the most impactful responses in urban contexts.


According to the type of EO contamination, operations in the urban environment will be based on one of two possible models. The first is for operations in urban centres where only conventional weapons have been used, and there is no victim-operated device. This work can be performed with a lower risk of initiating devices when moving through a task area. In addition, survey operations do not need to consider devices that might have been intentionally concealed.

The second model addresses urban environments that contain a presence of victim-operated devices and IEDs. In this context, the approach and required operator competencies should be deployed to deal with the threat of IEDs, as well as any conventional EO, based on the Threat Analysis carried out. While this approach is intensive in both time and resources, the potential for increased risk to operators while working in IED-contaminated settings requires the appropriate response. One of the greatest challenges in the detection of IEDs is the opportunity for concealment in an urban environment or building. This can mean looking for indicators that may be unique to that specific device or being aware of others that may at first not seem suspicious.

Determining appropriate procedures should be based on properly recorded evidence and in keeping with the established quality management system for the country of operation.

Building Clearance

Building Clearance is not one single prescriptive activity but the combination of procedures designed to find and dispose of specified explosive ordnance hazards and subsequently confirm that a building is clear of EO. In urban environments where there is a threat of concealed IEDs, one of these procedures is Intrusive Search which has traditionally been carried out by military or former military-trained experts. This capability has been underdeveloped until recently in the mine action sector, which has hindered the capacity of organisations to respond in an urban setting rapidly. The recent IMAS 09.13 on Building Clearance provides detailed guidance with a view to raising the profile of the technical requirements in this particular setting.

IMAS 09.131 guidance sets out that the function of finding EO within a building is achieved through three key actions:

  • Detect;
  • Locate; and
  • Recognise.

Each of these stages is achieved through a combination of techniques based on the overall threat analysis and a more detailed task-level threat assessment that in combination form an appropriate and safe procedure. Determining appropriate procedures should be based on properly recorded evidence and in keeping with the established quality management system for the country of operation. The spectrum of possible EO is wide, including items in a benign state and those with a high probability of detonation, based on their make-up and condition. The greatest threat is posed by EO that is victim-operated. Once suspected or known EO is identified, it should be marked and an operator with the appropriate IMAS EOD/IEDD qualifications should be tasked to dispose of it.

1 IMAS 09.13, Building Clearance, First Edition 04 February 2019, page 4

SMART system in action (photo source: APOPO)

Animal Detection Systems in buildings

Animal Detection Systems (ADS), primarily dogs, have been used in mine action for many years as part of the ‘toolbox’2 approach to Land Release, adding a tool to detection or verification methodologies to increase the efficiency of operations. Explosive Detection Dogs (EDD) have to be kept in the line of sight of the handler and this, together with various other operational factors, has presented challenges for effective and efficient ADS operating conditions, limiting the environments where ADS can be utilized. Recently, the GICHD in partnership with the Swiss company DIGGER has developed (for rural mine action environments) what is known as the SMART system (Swiss Mine Action Reduction Tool). Specialized equipment developed for this system allows a handler to send a dog without a leash, or on a long leash, deep into an area, which allows the potential for greater flexibility of deployment. The SMART system is a portable electronic device integrated into a wearable harness that is attached to a specially trained Technical Survey Dogs (TSD). The SMART system is based on a GPS technology, with a mounted speaker, allowing a dog handler to deliver voice commands over a distance of up to 100m, without needing line of sight. The system also has a built-in camera which permits the handler to monitor what the dog is seeing and the dog’s working environment. The data captured is transmitted to the handler’s android based mobile device, producing a real-time map showing the path covered by the TSD.

2 Toolbox approach in mine action refers to any operational methodology of equipment used in operations, or the support to operations

Left: Real-time map showing the position of the dog (photo source: Digger webpage); Right: Map showing the area searched by the SMART dog (photo source: APOPO)

When the TSD identifies and indicates a potential threat, the geo-referenced point is recorded. All the system data including the video stream is recorded and can be downloaded to a designated IMSMA (Information Management System for Mine Action) database. A standard wireless transmitter, which a signal-booster antenna can support , creates a hot-spot so the system can work effectively anywhere in the field. Based on the preliminary results of recent field evaluations in Cambodia, this technology has yielded very positive results, in appropriate context. Given the remote aspects of this system, it could also have potential applications in urban environments.

The use of dogs in urban operations is not a novelty. Several interviews and field visits conducted by GICHD between 2019 and 2020 found that although dogs are not used as a primary tool when building search, they are considered a useful asset in supporting the manual search teams. With this in mind, the SMART project managers have begun exploring whether it is possible to develop this system further for use in carrying out the often-dangerous task of searching buildings contaminated by IEDs. Given that the dog handler would avoid entering the building with this system, many dangerous aspects of building search could be avoided. This system would help mitigate the inherent risk of entering buildings that could present an IED threat, as well as non-explosive hazards, such as risks related to the structural integrity or enclosed spaces. The SMART EDD would be commanded and operated similarly as for open terrain or in heavy vegetation, where line of sight is limited.The system would most likely be integrated with unmanned arial systems (inspection drones) that could provide an additional visual assessment to mitigate the risk to the safety of the EDD.

Considering that mine action continues to learn from other sectors, some mine action operators are already looking into existing training and skills development of dogs used for emergency search and rescue operations to expand their use of dogs to urban contexts. Training packages will need to be modified to incorporate better the threats and challenges than working in a mine action context. Still, this cross-pollination of knowledge could further integrate EDD into urban operations, including playing an essential role in adapting the SMART system to an urban context.

The GICHD is looking for opportunities to test and evaluate SMART as an efficient and safe method for urban search. However, the current technology would have to be adjusted and developed further to take into consideration the urban environment’s challenges, such as the different layers of buildings, and obstacles for transmitting signals. These issues can be resolved, providing there is interest and sufficient resources available.

If this is of interest to mine action operators who are already using ADS in their operations, please contact GICHD Project Manager, Stanislav Damjanovic ([email protected]). With further research and development of the concept, mine action operators working in environments affected by IEDs could as a result see the improvement to their safety and effectiveness by using specially trained dogs supported by high-tech equipment to conduct the survey, gaining valuable information about what is inside buildings before entering.

Stanislav (Stan) Damjanovic is the Advisor for Land Release and Operational Efficiency at the GICHD. His work focuses on planning and delivering projects that assist national authorities to develop and improve clearance solutions, standards, and country relevant surveys to increase their operational efficiency. Additionally, he provides technical advice to wider audience on topics related to Land Release and Operational Efficiency and identifying the good practices in mine action. He participates in research and development of various training courses, guidance and other solutions related to mine action.

Prior to joining the GICHD, Stan worked for over ten years in the field, managing operations and mine action programmes in Somalia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Central African Republic, Turkey and Jordan (Syria response). He holds BA in Political Science from the University of Belgrade.

Ian Robb is the Technical Advisor at the GICHD for Urban Clearance of Improvised Explosive Devices. He is involved primarily in the development of standards and production of publications on IED related themes and his role also includes the provision of training courses in support of national authorities, non-governmental organisations and other stakeholders in the mine action sector.

Prior to joining the GICHD, Ian had been working in Iraq planning and implementing IED search operations in Mosul and the surrounding area. He has worked internationally as an IED search and C-IED instructor, providing relevant training to commercial companies, NGOs and military units in countries affected by various explosive hazards.

Ian served in the British Army as a high assurance search advisor and advanced EOD operator