Clearing the killing fields

Many millions of anti-personnel mines still litter the world’s battlefields. George Paloczi-Horvath reports on attempts to develop cheap and effective mine-clearance machines

Diana, princess of Wales’s death last year lent a great impetus to the international drive against anti-personnel land mines and the Ottowa convention which outlawed them. The UK signed the convention with particular alacrity, a reflection of the power of publicity.

While the ban is significant in that it declares illegal a terrible weapon, critics say it will not lead to the clearing of a single anti-personnel mine anywhere. Many tens of millions of such mines remain uncleared in some 68 countries. Estimates range from 85, 110, 125 or even as many as 300 million strewn over the active and former battlefields of Europe and the developing world.

Perhaps 20,000-26,000 people are killed by them each year and a much larger number injured.

The key issue for those actively involved in mine clearance is the need to fund training and buy affordable equipment for operation by local personnel in developing countries like Angola and Cambodia. Not everywhere has sophisticated armies on hand with the equipment, and time, to clear anti-personnel mines, as the NATO-led Stabilisation Force is currently doing in Bosnia.

For cheap and effective de-mining, there are several British inventions that offer significant breakthroughs in the effort to develop equipment which can be used by civilians with limited training.

Mines vary from the simple explosive booby trap with a clockwork fuse to the complex, so-called smart mines, which are comparatively difficult to detect or make safe. Because some are mainly made of plastic, conventional magnetic detection techniques are useless.

Sensor technologies range from the simplest and most dangerous technique – careful manual prodding of the ground with a bayonet – to various types of radar and infra-red detectors and even more arcane and expensive approaches such as nuclear quadropole resonance.

Simplicity of operation has become the key to the drive to clear mines. One new system is the Minelifta anti-personnel mine clearance machine, developed by Sheffield-based Minelifta International and launched in London last December.

Operating with a parent vehicle such as a standard bulldozer, the machine has a front scraper that lifts the top layer of ground into the path of a high inertia pulverisation system. This is housed within a pulverisation chamber or cowling that would contain the blasts from exploding mines, preventing secondary fragmentation and the scattering of live and inert mines nearby.

The pulverisation chamber subjects mines to different pressure conditions that will detonate the three main types, which are triggered by pressure variation, polarisation and impact. If the machine finds an anti-tank mine and it is blown apart, Minelifta can be reassembled for further use.

Once processed, the mines and debris are channelled into a central furrow behind the Minelifta and a magnetic separator in its tow extracts metal particles, making manual verification easier. Minelifta clears agricultural land and needs only basic tools and unskilled labour for maintenance.

Nick Kirk, Minelifta chief executive, says his company needs the backing of a major firm to allow the system to be marketed internationally and manufactured in series.

‘We need some big industrial firm to get behind the project. I’m not here to try to make money out of this,’ Kirk says, as his company could only produce small numbers of the machine.

Discussions on licensed production of Minelifta are focused on two companies in the Middle East and one in the US. This follows interest shown by UK firms such as Alvis, GEC, GKN and Vickers, but none have been willing to put up any money.

The United Nations estimates there are 120 million anti-personnel mines world-wide, and Kirk calculates it would take 1,400 years to clear them without major improvements in de-mining technologies.

December also saw the launch of the Dervish, a spindly three-wheeled machine invented by Stephen Salter, professor of engineering design at the mechanical engineering department of Edinburgh University.

The remote-controlled Dervish swirls in circles over minefields setting off the devices with its steel teeth, which imitate the impact of a human foot on the ground. Because of its pyramid construction, the instrument can detonate and withstand the impact of mines with a charge weight of 250g – far more than most anti-personnel mines.

An operator can control the Dervish from up to 400m away and the machine’s simplicity – it is powered by a small Honda engine – is such that it is claimed it could be maintained by a motorcycle mechanic.

Using the Dervish, one person could clear a hectare in about 30 hours, or 5sq m a minute – which is said to be a thousand times faster than clearing by hand with bayonet probing.

A company, Dervish Mine Clearance, has been set up to build the device, and it plans to produce 25 machines in its first year, rising to 100 in the second and 500 in the third. But the charitably-funded firm needs money. So far it has collected about £50,000 from charities, private individuals and the Royal Academy of Engineering and City of Edinburgh Council.

The Dervish, which will be tested in the field in Bosnia in April, will cost only £7,000 to produce. This compares with as much as £250,000 for mechanical de-mining machines like the Aardvark, a 13 tonne vehicle successfully used in Bosnia. This has 101mm-thick armour plating and 72 metal flails are fixed to a drum mounted at the front. With a six-cylinder 115hp turbocharged engine, the Aardvark travels at only 1.6 km/h.

Perhaps the oddest mine clearance device proposed by British engineers is the Shadow Robot, an eight-legged vehicle with wheels which could traverse an anti-personnel minefield carrying mine detection sensors or video cameras.

This petrol or diesel-driven ‘octopod’ would have legs with 30mm air muscle actuators – four per leg – each with a low cost in-built strain gauge. The muscles would be able to exert a pulling force of 300-500N. It is a long-term project, though. The London-based team is aiming to have a practical octopod in the field by 2005.

Given the particular danger posed by plastic anti-personnel mines, it might seem specific emphasis should be placed on their detection. But French-owned, British-based defence company Thomson Thorn Missile Electronics has not succeeded in obtaining UK funding for the handheld detector of plastic mines it is developing.

After the princess of Wales’s death, Mike Greenwood, the company’s marketing director, complained that the UK Government was not funding industry to develop such a detector, either from humanitarian sources, or from the Ministry of Defence.

Thomson Thorn is working on a detector ‘which can be used against all mine types, including plastic mines, using mine detection sensors like passive radio frequency detectors, active ground penetrating radar and magnetic detectors,’ Greenwood says.

The only outside funding has been provided by the French defence ministry. Development of the new mine detector began in 1996 and most work on it is now being done at Thomson Thorn’s Malakoff site in Paris.

Despite complaints about insufficient Government funding for the development of new de-mining technologies, Britain is now an enthusiastic official proponent of practical de-mining measures.

In response to the Ottowa convention, an immediate programme to destroy a million anti-personnel mines held by the British armed forces was given the go-ahead by defence secretary George Robertson in January. The programme will leave Britain with 4,000 mines to be retained for de-mining training purposes only – allowed under the convention.

The new British Army Mine Information and Training centre (MITC) at Minley in Surrey, established in late October, offers advice and guidance in support of world-wide humanitarian de-mining programmes.

The ban on anti-personnel mines will never solve the problems they pose. They can only begin to be properly dealt with by an energetic international effort to develop and build the kind of systems described.

Even if the ban stops production of currently identified anti-personnel mines, the wording of the UN Weaponry Convention’s Protocol II, which is supposed to define anti-personnel mines, specifically excludes command-detonated devices and does not properly define the difference between mines and booby traps.

There are also various ambiguities over anti-tank mines, some of which use magnetic influence fuses that can be detonated in the same way as an anti-personnel mine – and with the same terrible effect.