Drones Could Detect Hidden Killer ‘Butterfly’ Landmines
In post-conflict regions, the leftover landmines that litter the landscapes are a dangerous, even deadly, hazard that are often hard to locate and remove.
This is especially so for so-called ‘butterfly’ mines, the design of which is composed largely of non-metal materials, making them even more difficult to find by metal detectors.
With an somewhere in the vicinity of 100 million mines hidden just beneath or on the soil of 64 countries worldwide, UNICEF estimates 800 deaths a month and many more permanently maimed by landmines.
It is children who often find butterfly mines, such as the Soviet PFM-1, which with its small size and plastic exterior appears to a child’s eye to be a toy with which to play.
Indeed, the design of the PFM-1 has earned it the nickname of ‘the toy mine’, and it is associated with a high casualty rate in countries where it has been deployed in large numbers, such as Afghanistan.
So it is imperative that landmines are removed wherever possible – however, removal of mines is not an inexpensive process, costing sometimes a hundred times the cost of buying the mines in the first place, according to UNICEF.
A way of finding these mines at a far cheaper cost has now been developed by researchers at Binghampton University, and the simplicity of solution could literally be a lifesaver if it is able to be deployed widely.
Assistant Professor of Energy Geophysics Alex Nikulin and Director of the Geophysics and Remote Sensing Laboratory Timothy de Smet found that when they used a drone with infrared camera to map the early morning surface temperature of a given region, they could differentiate between the thermal signature of the local geology and that of the mines.
Put simply, these small landmines heat up in the early morning hours faster than that of the surrounding rocks, making the remnant minefields easier to spot at that time of day.
As there are many different drones that come with thermal imaging sensors, the technique should be able to be implemented at relatively low cost to current methods.
Nikulin says the method will also increase the efficiency and time with which landmines can be retrieved.
“We believe our method holds great potential for eventual wide-spread use in post-conflict countries, as it increases detection accuracy and allows for rapid wide-area assessment without the need for an operator to come into contact, or even proximity of the minefield,” says Nikulin.
“Critically, once further developed, this methodology can greatly reduce both costs and labor required for mine clearing operations across post-conflict regions.”
However as landmines are typically spread over large areas, de Smet says that they wish to continue their research to find ways of deploying many drones at once, and reducing the need for human operators.
“We are actively pursuing this project further and are in the process of field testing and calibrating our methodology,” says De Smet.
“Ultimately, we hope to develop a fully autonomous multi-drone system that would require minimum input from the operators.”