UK pioneers plastic mine detection

A UK underground radar specialist has called on big defence companies to help make its revolutionary landmine detection system a commercial reality.

Engineers from Hampshire-based PipeHawk are poised to fly to Bosnia, where the system will undergo final tests in a live minefield watched by observers from the European Union.

PipeHawk has spent four years developing ways to find plastic landmines by using Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) technology. Plastic mines now account for many of the lethal devices buried around the world, and are invisible to conventional metal detectors.

Confident of trials

Mike Bushell, PipeHawk’s managing director, said the system had passed all its initial testing phases, and he was confident May’s final trials would be successful. But he warned there is no guarantee it will be used in the world’s war zones without any backing from major partners in the commercial and charitable sectors.

Bushell said continued EU funding and PipeHawk’s own resources would not be sufficient to get the system to the marketplace.

‘We really need someone in the defence arena, a big player like BAE Systems, to take it on and help get it out into the market,’ said Bushell. He said the company is also talking to relevant charities, including those given high-profile backing by Princess Diana, about supporting the system’s development.

But charities have strict rules about how much of their money they can expose to commercial risk, leaving Bushell convinced a major defence company is best placed to invest. ‘There is a humanitarian aspect, but we believe it is also a good commercial proposition,’ he said.

PipeHawk became involved in mine clearance when it realised GPR technology could have applications beyond its core commercial function of helping utilities keep track of their vast underground networks of pipes and cables.

The company has been working with Dutch and German partners as part of the EU’s Lotus project, which is helping to fund development of a range of innovative detection and clearance technologies.

The PipeHawk system is designed to be attached to the side of either a manned or robot vehicle. This drives along a strip of land already cleared by conventional means, surveying the area immediately adjacent to it.

The system uses custom-designed software to process a combination of metal detecting, infrared and GPR data to detect and map the position of each mine, giving clearance teams the precise location of each device.

Each strip can then be mapped and cleared in turn until the area is free of mines.

Two choices

Bushell claimed the system has the potential to revolutionise mine clearance. ‘There are currently two choices,’ he said. ‘You either have mechanical flailing devices which churn up the whole area and blow up everything in sight. Or you send outa team of men to lie flat on their faces and find the mines by hand.’

Bushell said the latter option, with all the attendant risks, was still the method most commonly used around the world. ‘The authorities will take the chances and accept the casualties.’

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