Land mine removal is slow, tedious and expensive, and methods have advanced little since World War II. But a recent report commissioned by the administration of US President George W Bush recommends that the US devote $50 million to pursuing innovations lest the job, as it now stands worldwide, take nearly 500 years.
A daunting illustration of the technological limitations: “Of approximately 200 million items excavated during humanitarian demining in Cambodia between 1992 and 1998, only about 500,000 items (less than 0.3 percent) were anti-personnel mines or other explosive devices,” said the report, written by the US-based Rand Corp.
The problem here is confused metal detectors. They do not know if an object is explosive, only if it is metal. Countless paid man-hours are lost to the unearthing of innocuous scrap.
Another frustration faced by Cambodian demining teams is the earth itself. Jay Steed of the demining company UXB International said that laterite, the red soil found around the country, is so heavy with iron that it, too, sometimes sets off mine and unexploded ordnance detectors.
The process is laborious. Crawling along in a heavy protective vest and a hothouse-like helmet, the deminer sweeps the ground with his metal detector—a commercially available instrument used by treasure-hunting hobbyists in developed nations. When metal is detected, the deminer carefully probes the ground, trying to discern what is down there. Often it is harmless.
Some progress has been made. Since 1999, the Cambodian Mine Action Center has employed dogs to sniff out explosives. CMAC Director General Khem Sophoan said Wednesday the dogs can be helpful as they do not slow down for harmless metal litter and they can locate plastic land mines.
But the dogs, which are from Germany and the Netherlands, are unused to this climate and their noses grow dull as their body temperature rises. Khem Sophoan said they can only be used in the early morning and late afternoon and they still sometimes are confounded by the weather.
In lush regions like Cambodia’s, a demining team must clear out undergrowth that could interfere with the electromagnetic pulse sent out by their metal detectors. A once slow and dangerous manual task that required inspection for tripwires can now be handled by mechanized brush-cutters. Khem Sophoan said the brush-cutters reduce his teams’ time cards by 70 percent.
Worldwide the variables hindering mine and UXO detection are many. Topography, temperature, soil type, vegetation, humidity, depth of mine burial and type of explosive can throw off means of detection that under ideal circumstances could prove more reliable.
Therefore the Rand Corp has recommended the US look to combine two or more “promising” technologies in one instrument that can read the two signals simultaneously, process them together and give the deminer a better idea of what is around.
The report said the US Army is currently testing a “dual-sensor system” that uses electromagnetic induction (the old metal detector) and ground-penetrating radar, a still imperfect technology. However, the report says that this line of research and development is flawed as the operator still receives two separate signals from the instrument. The Army’s machine does not process the information it collects.
Steed and Khem Sophoan both said ground-penetrating radar is not yet reliable, and Rand Corp concedes it can be fooled by rocks, roots, water and extremely moist or dry environments. Still, realistic options seem few.
Steed described the technology situation as a Catch-22, considering budget limitations.
“You have to weigh [research and development] against people on the ground removing the mines,” he said Monday. “A lot of ideas are out there, but they all deserve to be looked at. Cars were science fiction 100 years ago.”
And a few of those ideas mentioned by the Rand Corp do seem the stuff of fantasy. Buried in the report below assessments of acoustic/seismic detection, “X-ray backscatter” and other advanced-sounding technologies are reports on research into the use of bees and African giant pouch rats in land mine and UXO detection.
Apparently scientists have been training bees by lacing sugar with chemicals found in explosives. The bees will then swarm over those explosives, associating them with food.
Unfortunately, the report said, bees can only work under specific environmental and climate conditions and they are difficult to track.
And the rat research, being conducted at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, reportedly has run up against similar difficulties as the dogs. Some rats are keener than others, and varying weather conditions also can confound their detection abilities.