Field Trials to Test an Explosives Detector to Remove Landmines left after Conflict


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Dr Jamie Barras is the head of the Humanitarian Technologies Lab in the Department of Informatics at King’s College London.

The lab exists to develop new technologies to deliver humanitarian assistance to people in need.  King’s is raising funds for Jamie’s project, to run field trials to test an explosive detector for clearing landmines, which will improve landmine detection and ultimately lead to saving more lives.

“My fervent hope is that the world will one day be free from the threats caused by landmines and explosive remnants of war” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (The Strategy of the United Nations on Landmines 2013 – 2018, Report published 2012)

Challenges with Landmines

Landmines Kill and maim and keep communities impoverished long after a conflict has ended.  Every day people lose their lives to landmines; children are particularly vulnerable: “…children are far more likely to die from their mine injuries than are adults. Of those maimed children who survive, few will receive prostheses that keep up with the continued growth of their stunted limbs.” (UNICEF, Impact of Armed Conflict on Children). 

On top of this devastating problem, approaches to clearing landmines and unexploded ordnance are still rooted in technologies developed in the 1940s. When applied to the field of humanitarian demining – clearing landmines post-conflict – where the requirement is that 100% of landmines present in an area be removed, they are time-consuming, labour-intensive, and can be dangerous. This makes humanitarian demining a slow, expensive and risky business.

Landmine Detection Technology

We believe that landmine detection could be far better. Technologies now exist which, if adapted to the challenges of humanitarian demining, could speed up the clearance of landmines, saving lives and releasing land for communities to use. One such technology is “quadrupole resonance,” a technical name for a radiofrequency-based explosives sensor – a device that identifies the presence (or absence) of explosives by sending out bursts of radio waves and listening for the distinctive signatures of explosives in the gaps between.  

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This is different to radar, where radio waves bounce off objects allowing you to know that something is there, but not specifically what that object is. With quadrupole resonance, the radio waves are absorbed by the molecules of the object we are trying to find – in this case, an explosive – and this absorbed energy is then retransmitted for us to detect. The key thing is: this only happens when the frequency of the radio waves matches that of one of the absorption modes of the molecule; and different molecules have different absorption frequencies. So we never confuse an explosives signature for that of something innocuous – or, indeed, the signature of one explosive for that of another.

Technical challenges

First, there are technical challenges of adapting quadrupole resonance for humanitarian demining – the signals we detect are very weak, so we needed to develop better ways to pick them up. The equipment we used in the past is made for the laboratory; we needed to make it simple, rugged and cheap for deployment in the field.

We believe we have a piece of kit that can get the job done – our AQUAREOS system (Advanced Quadrupole Resonance based Explosives Ordnance Sensor). But now we have to prove that. And prove that to the satisfaction of the people at the sharp end of demining – the people who will have to stake their lives on what our kit tells them about whether or not there’s a landmine buried in the ground in front of them.

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Team member Blaz Zupancic demonstrating the system at an event at the UK Parliament, April 2016

Testing our Kit in the Field

Proving our kit works in field conditions is what will convince deminers it’s safe to use; so taking our kit our into the field is our next step. That’s a three-stage process:

Stage 1: Assess what challenges we will face in working out in the field, at a site for training deminers

Stage 2: running trials of our kit out in the field, at a site for training deminers, proving it works under realistic conditions

Stage 3: Putting our kit into the hands of deminers to trial in a real minefield in Sri Lanka

So far, we have covered stage 1, Stage 3 we can only get to by completing stage 2; and completing stage 2 is where we need help.

“The world is over-armed, peace is under-funded” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (The Strategy of the United Nations on Landmines 2013 – 2018, Report published 2012)

We need additional funding to get time at a test site set up to train deminers. The test site is in Croatia, and we need two days there. That costs money, money that currently we don’t have, because there’s a lot less money available to clear up after wars than there is to fight them.

minefield-sign-002

This is a picture of a minefield sign in Bosnia which says “In this area is a great danger of mines”

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Another minefield sign, this is land that could be used for agriculture or recreation if it was cleared of landmines

What will going to the test site achieve?

By the end of the trials we will have the data we need to prove that our kit does what it is supposed to do – detect the explosives content of a buried landmine – and have demonstrated this at a site that deminers will recognize as a realistic environment, because it’s the site where many of them will have trained. This is hard data that we will be able to take to the demining organisations with whom we are already in contact in order to unlock that crucial third stage: putting the kit into the hands of deminers in a real minefield in Sri Lanka.

Our goal 

Our goal through this crowdfunding campaign is to fund the trials at the Croatian test site – to send two of our team with the kit to Croatia, hire the site for two days and gather our data. Beyond that, any additional sum will be put towards the minefield tests, broken down into funding the flights for one person to take the kit out there, and that person’s subsistence once out there, building upwards to taking a second team member along to share the load.

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If we exceed our goal?

Then that additional money will go towards the costs of stage 3, taking the kit to an actual minefield in Sri Lanka, where we can demonstrate it to people working at the sharp end of the problem, the deminers themselves. Simple as that.

Meet the team

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Image: Left is Jamie, right is Weihang

Dr Jamie Barras, PhD

QR sensors team leader, with 20 years-experience of radiofrequency detection research; educated at the universities of Cardiff and Cambridge, he’s worked in the UK, US and Japan, with funding from bodies as diverse as the IAEA, the Wellcome Trust and Find a Better Way.  You can read about some of his earlier work in the detection of improvised explosives here: “Detection of ammonium nitrate inside vehicles by nuclear quadrupole resonance”, J Barras et al Applied Magnetic Resonance 25 (3-4), 411-437 (2004) DOI: 10.1007/BF03166538

Dr Weihang Shao, PhD

Signal processing, educated at the University of Nanjing.  “We easily ignore the landmines remaining inside soil, while the landmines continue to take innocent lives.  It is so easy for the landmine problem to be reborn, if peace is broken.  Landmines devour the farmlands, imprision people’s steps, and weave the hatred between peoples.”

Dr Blaz Zupancic, PhD

Born in the former Yugoslavia and as a child experienced first-hand the break-up of the country. He studied physics in Ljubljana, Slovenia and has for the last 10 years focused on experimental magnetic resonance techniques. In June 2015, he joined KCL as a hardware specialist for quadrupole resonance explosives detection.

Support from Colleagues

Dr Tim Rayner, Bagtronics Ltd

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Landmines are still a massive problem and we need to get better at clearing them.  However introducing new technologies into demining is a difficult and long process.  I’ve worked in the field of mine detection research myself for some years, and from that experience, and having known Jamie Barras for a long time, I know that this project the KCL team are proposing, built on their collective two-decade long experience with quadrupole resonance research, is the best way to move things forward.

Prof. Hideo Itozaki, University of Osaka

hideo-itozaki-photo

Landmines buried in Colombia use ammonium nitrate as an explosive, but contain no metal. So that a metal detector cannot detect them.  I am now developing an ammonium nitrate landmine detector using NQR, and I made a feasibility test of this developed NQR detector in Colombia with cooperation of Colombia National University and Colombia army last October.  I have known Jamie Barras for over ten years, ever since he worked in my research group in Osaka University.  Being familiar with the detector that his group have developed, and based on my own experience in Colombia, I think this is project to go to Croatia will produce important results.

To thank you for your support there are a number of perks up for grabs from seminars to learn more about the work to T-shirts as a memento of the research you have backed (see below)!!

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  • 5 Backers

    Thank you: A thank you e-postcard from us for supporting the research and we will send you a report once the first phase is complete.

  • 4 Backers

    Thank you postcard: We will send you the official backer postcard to say thank you for supporting this research.

  • 5 Backers
    Limit of 100 — 95 remaining

    Seminar: We will host a seminar in London on May 2017 to tell you how it went and further plans for the research.

  • 5 Backers
    Limit of 100 — 95 remaining

    Sci-T: You will receive the official backer T-shirt for the research which will include the Ban Ki-Moon quote "The world is overarmed, peace is underfunded"

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    Limit of 100 — 96 remaining

    Sci-Art: When the next phase is complete we will send you an image specifically designed for backers of this project

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    Sci-Art on Canvas: You will receive the official artwork for the project on canvas and display it on your wall knowing your funding has been key to funding this important project.

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    KCL lab visit: We will invite you to our lab and show you the kit, you will also receive a canvas print and an invitation to the seminar.

  • Backers
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    Visit test site: We will show you how the kit in action at the test site and also you will receive an invitation to the seminar and canvas print.

  • Backers

    Fund the project: If you would like to fund the whole project, this is the pledge for you!

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Select your pledge amount

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CONTINUE
  • 5 Backers

    Thank you: A thank you e-postcard from us for supporting the research and we will send you a report once the first phase is complete.

  • 4 Backers

    Thank you postcard: We will send you the official backer postcard to say thank you for supporting this research.

  • 5 Backers
    Limit of 100 — 95 remaining

    Seminar: We will host a seminar in London on May 2017 to tell you how it went and further plans for the research.

  • 5 Backers
    Limit of 100 — 95 remaining

    Sci-T: You will receive the official backer T-shirt for the research which will include the Ban Ki-Moon quote "The world is overarmed, peace is underfunded"

  • 4 Backers
    Limit of 100 — 96 remaining

    Sci-Art: When the next phase is complete we will send you an image specifically designed for backers of this project

  • 1 Backer
    Limit of 10 — 9 remaining

    Sci-Art on Canvas: You will receive the official artwork for the project on canvas and display it on your wall knowing your funding has been key to funding this important project.

  • 1 Backer
    Limit of 5 — 4 remaining

    KCL lab visit: We will invite you to our lab and show you the kit, you will also receive a canvas print and an invitation to the seminar.

  • Backers
    Limit of 5 — 5 remaining

    Visit test site: We will show you how the kit in action at the test site and also you will receive an invitation to the seminar and canvas print.

  • Backers

    Fund the project: If you would like to fund the whole project, this is the pledge for you!