Inexpensive drones: using technological innovation to eradicate landmines

By Ms. Pinja Mann, Analyst, IB Consultancy

According to Landmine Monitor, as of October 2020, 60 states and other areas, e.g., North Atlantic and the Baltic Sea (where naval mines from World War II can still be found from time to time), are still contaminated by antipersonnel mines, including 33 States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty, 22 non-parties as well as five different regions. Moreover, massive antipersonnel mine contamination is suspected to exist in 10 States Parties, namely Cambodia, Thailand, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Ethiopia, Iraq, Turkey, Ukraine, and Yemen.

In Cambodia alone, four to six million mines and unexploded ordinance remain (UXO). These have been left behind by 30 years of conflict that ended in the 1990s. The remaining minefields are concentrated, but not limited to the rural north-west of the country, especially along the Thai border, also known as "K5". The Vietnamese-backed government installed the mine belt in the mid-1980s to block insurgent infiltration. According to the U.S. Humanitarian Demining Research and Development Report on Cambodia, 2010, the "K5" is the country's most contaminated area, suspected to be up to 2,400 miles per linear kilometer. While the mines pose an issue in the rural north-west, UXO's pose a significant risk in the Eastern provinces of Cambodia, in alignment with the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Progress in demining is highly dependent on technical developments in the field as well as new policy-challenges.

Although countries such as the United States, Norway, and Japan, among others, allocate large sums to help with disarmament efforts, Cambodia announced in January 2020 that casualties from landmines and UXO's increased by 35 percent from 2018 to 2019. Casualties are occurring primarily in the border provinces due to the demand for agricultural resources. Also, economic need drives the dangerous recycling of UXO for its scrap metal value. There have been over 64,000 casualties, and 25,000 amputees recorded since 1979.

Progress in demining is highly dependent on technical developments in the field as well as new policy-challenges. In parallel, removing landmines is difficult and massively time-consuming. There are two types of mine clearance and removal, namely humanitarian- and -military demining.

Humanitarian demining is conducted post-conflict, while military demining is more tactical and often performed during conflicts. The latter must be fast, and the work is usually performed in unfavorable and extreme conditions. The clearance rate lies somewhere between 70 and 90 percent, while humanitarian mine elimination has a clearance rate of 100 percent. It can be paused when conditions become too challenging. Nevertheless, humanitarian demining is a time-consuming 3-phase process with more casualties than military demining.

Minefield detection is done by referencing war documents or aerial surveillance materials.

Mechanized detonation is carried out with armored machinery, and finally, manual inspection is used to ensure that all mines are cleared from the area. What complicates things even further are infrastructural challenges, extreme climate conditions, and terrain. The primary devices used range from metal detectors, handheld prodders to other more-simple tools than those used in military demining.

The most effective and safe way to clear mines would be using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), i.e., drones. With the help of new technologies and inexpensive solutions, landmine clearance can become cost-effective, safer, as well as less time-consuming.

Mine clearance endeavors on the ground and from the air with robotics

In 2016 there was much buzz about a new drone development; this drone would be able to map, detect and detonate landmines. That drone in question was called the Mine Kafon Drone (MKD). MKD is a product of the Mine Kafon Company, based in the Netherlands. Drones come in many forms and have various features, enabling easier detection processes and eventually saving lives and current costs of disarmament efforts.

The Odyssey 2025 project, funded by the Belgian Directorate-General for Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid, and Handicap International (H.I.) and their partner Mobility Robotics tested the application of drones to their respective demining operations. The project's findings indicated that drones don't have to be expensive or complicated to get the job done. Commercial off-the-shelf devices can already produce highly accurate images and thermal analyses of extensive areas.

Whereas low-cost UAV, e.g., AR drone 2.0, has been experimentally tested, and already similar drones can be used as an accurate complement tool for landmine detection tasks in challenging terrains and scenarios. The key being that an aerial platform equipped with visual sensors decreases the risks involved in humanitarian demining.

(...) drones, coupled with A.I., have a massive potential to rid the world of landmines!

Researchers at Binghamton University have also experimented with using inexpensive commercial drones, outfitted with infrared sensors to collect visual data, which in turn can be reviewed for any signs of landmines. Furthermore, this approach has already been proven to be effective for finding, e.g., "butterfly-mines". These "butterfly-mines" are extremely small in size, and since metal isn't a predominant part of their design, locating these mines can be extremely difficult. What can be deducted from these findings is that drones, coupled with A.I., have a massive potential to rid the world of landmines! Drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) have always been a polarizing topic, mainly due to strict federal regulations, preventing these robotics' normalization at large. Nevertheless, UAS are used for a plethora of things, ranging from war purposes to delivering your latest amazon purchase to your doorstep. Although the vast majority of Western governments do not tend to be very infatuated with these technologies, the U.S. military favors various types of drones in their deployments. They continuously allocate a substantial amount in their military spending budget to drones. In late December 2020, a $3.2 trillion spending package was approved by Congress, including $286 million for MQ-9 Reaper drones.

Some people might think that land mines are not a pressing issue anymore since fewer deaths are occurring. On the contrary, land mines still pose a global threat! While new use of antipersonnel landmines is rare and limited in scope, some governments continue laying mines to this date, namely Myanmar (Burma), Libya (under Gaddafi's rule), and Syria. The latter two are known to have planted antipersonnel mines during recent conflicts.

Nevertheless, not all hope is lost! New community engagements, e.g., in Vietnam, where it is suspected that over 6.1 million hectares of land remain blanketed by unexploded munitions, all-women teams are working hard to remove these mines. Whereas young innovators and developers such as the two Dutch-Afghani brothers, Massoud and Mahmud Hassani, behind the Mine Kafon project, as well as Richard Yim, the founder of Demine Robotics, who launched a mine clearance machine, Jevit, designed to eradicate landmines remotely with minimal human exposure safely, give hope for the future of more effective clearance operations. The promising technological and innovative developments would indicate that eradicating landmines from the earth will become a possibility at some point in time.

Pinja is currently studying MSc Security and Crisis Management - Governance of Crisis at Leiden University. She joined IB Consultancy in November 2020.