Soldiers in Afghanistan could detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) with a remote tool created by researchers in Switzerland.
The technology can activate homemade landmines at a distance of up to 25m by transmitting electromagnetic waves at a range of frequencies. This inducts a current in the devices and causes them to explode.
Researchers from the Swiss technology institute EPFL have worked for two years with the universities of Colombia and Los Andes to overcome the difficulties of removing IEDs, which are especially hard to find because they tend to be mostly made of plastic.
IEDs are used increasingly by insurgents in Afghanistan, where, in the last few years, they have become the main cause of fatalities among coalition forces.
They are also a serious issue in places such as Colombia, where guerrilla groups have used them as part of their conflict with government forces.
The problem is so bad that Colombian electricity companies provided funding to develop the detection device in an effort to reduce casualties suffered by their employees who travel through affected areas of the country.
One of the main issues with combating the problem is that every device is different and therefore operates at a slightly different electromagnetic frequency.
‘IEDs are generally made of very simple electrical circuits characterised by different geometry and different configurations,’ EPFL’s Prof Farhad Rachidi told The Engineer.
‘Mostly they are connected to blasting caps, which are also characterised electromagnetically in different ways. So the whole system will be sensitive to electromagnetic energy as a function of frequency.’
To tackle this problem, Rachidi and doctoral students Félix Vega and Nicolas Mora first generated an electromagnetic wave with a broad frequency spectrum of up to 1GHz.
But because it only transmitted to each frequency for a very short time, it didn’t provide enough energy to detonate the IEDs.
They then realised that the general configuration of most IEDs meant that they operated within a smaller frequency range and so the team was able to target the electromagnetic pulse to deliver enough energy.
EPFL’s prototype is specifically designed for use in Colombia, but Rachidi said the principle would be the same for devices in Afghanistan or any other country.
‘They are pretty much the same. There is an issue with the blasting caps but, by using other types with other characteristics, in principle, we should be able to adapt the system to make it work.’
The next stage of the project is creating a more compact and robust prototype. Rachidi said the device could be ready for use within five years with the right commercial partner.
He added that no device could provide a 100 per cent solution to the issue of IEDs and that he expected the technology to be used alongside existing methods of detection, such as sniffer dogs.