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The Challenge? Life-Saving Landmine Detection

Engineers work to overcome the humanitarian crisis posed by improvised landmines.

An unfortunate reality in Columbia is that there are some areas still littered with landmines. According to the UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS), there are more than 11,200 registered victims of mines and unexploded ordnances in Colombia as of November 2015, some of whom are children.

Though metal detection technology exists to find traditional landmines, the mines in Columbia pose an additional threat: They were made by guerilla forces or cartels with whatever objects were on hand. As a result, the improvised mines are often made of inconsistent materials and may not contain metal.

In 2015, the FARC guerrilla force and the Colombian government agreed on comprehensive mine clearance goals, but achieving these goals is difficult in practice.

Engineers from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum and Technical University Ilmenau in Germany, along with partners in Colombia, have teamed up to try to develop technology (and ultimately a handheld device) to detect these mines and make Columbia safer. So far, they have created a radar system to reflect signals at objects on or underground, and they are able to analyze the results in real-time to automate the search.

For the system to work, the engineers had to figure out what the mines’ radar signals would look like. An unorthodox yet valuable homework assignment, members of the team built their own diverse set of makeshift mines (detonators without explosives) for use with computer models to simulate the radar signals that would be produced. They then analyzed the data, looking for signals unique to the mines (i.e., signals not generated by harmless objects in the terrain).

The team is still a few years away from developing a handheld automated detection device, but they continue to work to solve the problem.

“All mines must be found, because it is a matter of humanitarian mine clearance,” says Dr. Christoph Baer, a faculty member from the Institute of Electronic Circuits at Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Baer explains that the project will not produce any patents, as they do not seek profit and want the technology available to the public in hopes of saving as many lives as possible.


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