Scitech  An end to landmines in sight

New research could contribute to the safe removal of improvised explosive devices

Two Colombian doctoral students at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have developed a device capable of harnessing electromagnetic energy to remotely detonate makeshift landmines. If applied in humanitarian situations, this technology could significantly lessen the threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are widely used by guerilla and terrorist groups.

Work was conducted at EPFL’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Laboratory in conjunction with two Colombian universities, the National University of Colombia and the University of Los Andes. Motivated in part by ongoing revolutionary conflict in their home country of Colombia, Nicolás Mora and Felix Vega decided to complete their thesis on the subject after being awarded Swiss research scholarships. Their professor, and the director of the project, Francisco Roman, guided the development from Bogotá. The researchers’ work came to fruition in late 2010, as successful system tests were carried out in Colombia last November.

Their device emits short and intense pulses of electromagnetic energy in order to induce currents in the mine’s detonator and set off the bomb. Although they are crafted out of a variety of materials – which originally made a universally effective device difficult to conceive of – the scientists learned that all IEDs are detonated at around the same frequency. Thus, the waves are focused at a limited range of the radio spectrum in order to both conserve enough energy to effect detonation from a distance and function for an array of landmine types.

Remote explosion differs from other more tedious de-mining methods, which often entail neutralization rather than detonation and can be dangerous, since there may be a secondary switch on the mine. Because guerilla groups typically construct their bombs out of uneasily detectable materials like plastic and do not chart their location, finding IEDs traditionally entails extensive fieldwork. Locating mines requires removing vegetation with unorthodox tools, including hooks, cords, dogs, and even human hands. Because of this clearing one square kilometre of land can take months, since it must be completely secure for inhabitants to return to afterwards. The new device allows for detonation from up to twenty metres away without these uncertain logistical difficulties.

While IEDs are utilized in conflicts spanning the globe from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, this development would be particularly useful in the doctoral students’ native Colombia, where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been active since the 1960s. Like similar rebel groups from the time period, FARC was inspired by Marxist-Leninist teachings and sought to displace established oligarchs in favor of the rural poor. Group composition has transformed over time, however, and their precise demands have become unclear in recent years. The 2006 election of President Juan Manuel Santos saw the beginning of a successful persecution of the rebel groups, whose presence has been lessening as they retreat to the countryside.

Despite this decline, scientists closely involved with the project have been required to agree to confidentiality contracts, even though they are happy to receive media attention. Vega explained in an email, “Low-intensity wars, landmines and scientific initiatives from third world countries are not on the main spot of the media every day. However, the sponsors of the research ask us to stay away from the media, because – here is the paradox – this may expose the team working in Colombia.”

In an interview with The Daily, a researcher involved with the project, who wished to remain anonymous, further attributes the controversy to the fact that the project is being undertaken in part by the National University of Colombia. According to this source, the University has been the centre of various political movements over the years and has consequentially been accused of mentoring guerilla leaders and aiding their efforts. In fact, one of the most prominent FARC leaders, Alfonso Cano, attended the university in the 1970s. Clearly, this scientific development has significant political implications.

Among these implications, the most important is the device’s ability to save and improve lives. Colombia has the highest number of landmine victims reported each year in the Western Hemisphere, with civilians accounting for one third of the annual 1,000 victims. An additional aspect of landmine detonation does not receive much attention is displacement, as dense IED implementation has led 4 million Colombians to be driven from their neighbourhoods due to the risk of accidental detonation. All over the world, thousands die each year from improvised landmines used in present and past conflicts. Even when fighting has ended, leftover mines threaten civilians who attempt to reinhabit the effected areas.

While researchers hope to eventually distribute the device to regions like these, they acknowledge difficulties posed by different and uncertain terrain, rebel patterns, and political climates. The source speculated that it will take a few more years to put the development into action – “You’ve solved the scientific part, now you have to get [the device] in the back of a truck somewhere.” This somewhere is intended to be an inactive conflict zone in a humanitarian setting, so that the electromagnetic waves would not trigger accidental detonation or interfere with civilians and combatants.

Representatives from governments and private enterprises have already contacted directors of the project to investigate potential distribution of the technology. Now that the science is completed, it will be the market’s job to coordinate dispersal of this technology and dictate the extent to which it helps clear dangerous areas and save civilian lives.