Land-Mine-Detecting Drones Put to the Test

A U.K. university is hoping to sell Cambodia its first fleet of unmanned drones and rovers for clearing land mines, sending a team to Pursat province last week for a test run.

The equipment, designed at the University of Central Lancashire, could potentially make the slow, dangerous work of clearing land mines faster, safer and cheaper, said Phal Simorn, a deputy director of the Defense Ministry’s National Center for Peacekeeping, Mines and Explosive Remnants of War Clearance (NPMEC).

“We are considering whether this modern equipment can make our deminers more effective,” he said on Sunday. “I am now awaiting the test results. If it’s effective, we will make a proposal to the Defense Ministry to buy the equipment.”

Cambodia is one of the most mine-ridden countries in the world and currently carries out its clearing with hand-held metal detectors and the help of explosive-sniffing dogs. It has cleared about half its minefields to date, but expects the work to last at least until 2025. Old mines, bombs and rockets killed more than 100 Cambodians last year, most of them civilians.

Lieutenant General Simorn said staff from the university tested the drones and rovers with NPMEC deminers on October 17 and 18 and took the results back to the U.K. for analysis.

Another NPMEC deputy director, Ken Sosavoeun, said he was not sure exactly how the equipment worked, but explained that it relied on a combination of high- and low-altitude images to detect potential mines several meters deep.

He said the results could take about three weeks to come back.

“If everything is OK, we would buy some of the equipment,” he said, adding that the smaller drones would cost about $20,000 each and the larger ones $160,000.

While the NPMEC does some demining in Cambodia, the government’s Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) carries out the vast majority. But Major General Sosavoeun said the equipment was probably too costly for CMAC, which is funded separately, to become involved.

Besides, CMAC director Heng Ratana a few months ago cast doubt on the efficacy of remote mine clearance in Cambodia. He said the local terrain made manual detection faster and more accurate.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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