Digging Deeper

Article by Maram Razouki, student of INTO Manchester and runner up in our 2017 Science Journalism contest.

Can one doughnut kill you? Not quite, but something thing the size of a doughnut could very much do so. A landmine, not much bigger than a pastry, triggered by the slightest pressure could demolish a human body in a matter of seconds or if lucky, cause a permanent disability.

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There are two types of land mines: anti-vehicle and anti-personnel mines.  The anti-vehicle mines are large and the power of their explosion would obliterate an immense tank effortlessly, which shockingly is why they are not the problem. Because they are activated by very high pressure, such as that of a tank, and their bulky size they can easily be identified and extinguished by De-miners with ease.  On the other hand, the human-targeting low pressure activated anti-personnel mines are the needle in the stack of haystack; they have very little metal and are virtually impossible to detect accurately by existing metal detectors.

According to Dr. Liam Marsh, there are over 110000000 active land mines in the world which will require 1100 years to demine despite the fact that it takes minutes to implant thousands of them. To add insult to injury, for every 5000 mines removed one person from the demining team dies and two are injured. In addition, areas of land that contain mines are practically waste land as they are uninhibited due to their threat and are uncultivable which is a disaster considering the status of our world food bank in the past decades.

Although not ideal, the most popular tool used in demining is the metal detector. The  problem with metal detectors currently on the market are summed up as follows: firstly, current metal detectors are programmed to detect all metals including the abundant debris in the soil of war zones and high iron levels in soil (noise) ; this creates confusion and false alarms to the de-miners. Secondly, the majority of anti-personnel mines contain the minimum amount of metal possible and hence are hardly ever detected by a metal detector.

Dr. Marsh’s five-year minimum-metal landmine identification project was a successful attempt to increase the efficiency of the demining industry and the metal detectors used in particular. To overcome such obstacles, the project combines the properties of the existing metal detectors with those of the ground penetrating radar (GPR). The GPR calculates how far the object is underground by transmitting radio signals into the ground and as the reflected signals return it measures the time taken to and from the object calculating the distance accordingly. In addition, Dr.Marsh’s project creates profiles, similar to unique figure prints, to all objects based on their properties, for example, composition of iron by reducing the noise around a land mine.  It therefore acts as a sensor that would identify what the object is and how deep it is underground before wasting time and effort on professional digging. In practice, profiles of numerous objects would be created in the laboratory and installed on the project’s system; the project will then match the properties of the object detected to the matching profile on its system and using the radar technique calculate how deep the object is.

This project is important because it would identify mines with very little metal that current metal detectors cannot detect and this increase the safety of the demining process in addition to making the process more efficient. Hence, Dr. Marsh is optimistic and believes that the project facilitates the mine-clearing process and therefore is an important step towards a mine-free world.

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