Tuesday, September 27

To clear deadly landmines, science turns to drones and machine learning

A hot wind blows across an empty field on the outskirts of Pawnee, Okla. A small group of searchers struggle against the strong wind to set up a pop-up tent for some shade. Nearby, a young man opens a heavy Pelican suitcase to reveal a pile of explosives. “They’re inerts,” he says, “but we’re lucky to be working on a range that has so many different types of ammunition.”

The range is an explosive ordnance disposal field laboratory run by Oklahoma State University, and researchers are led by Jasper Baur and Gabriel Steinberg, co-founders of the Demining Research Community, a nonprofit organization linking academic research and humanitarian demining efforts. They’ve been in Oklahoma for two weeks, setting up mine and ordnance grids to form a drone-based, machine learning-powered detection system to find and identify dangerous explosives so humans don’t have to. to do it.

The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that at least 7,073 people were killed or injured by landmines in 54 countries and regions in 2020. Many groups working to remove these old munitions are non-profit organizations with a fraction resources of the military who deployed the dangerous explosives.

Steinberg is holding a small plastic wing attached to a candle-shaped metal piece. “It’s the PFM-1 ‘butterfly mine’,” he says. This anti-personnel mine was developed by the Soviet Union and deployed in its war in Afghanistan, where examples of the ammunition can be found to this day. There is evidence that the same mines are currently being deployed by Russia in Ukraine.

The primary purpose of mines and unexploded cluster munitions is to deny the use of roads and fields to enemy troops and vehicles. The problem is that mines and unexploded cluster munitions don’t “extinguish” at the end of a war. Instead, they remain a mortal danger to civilians for decades, sometimes outliving the very countries that deployed them.

It is estimated that several million mines and active munitions are scattered in dozens of countries. Baur says his goal and that of his colleagues is to make their drone detection system available to demining organizations around the world to aid in efforts to secure countries emerging from conflict.

As countries continue to deploy munitions to the war in Ukraine and elsewhere, the need for new tools will persist for some time.