Millions of landmines, nearly undetectable when planted in shallow earth, have been scattered around the world since 1940. It would take more than a millennium to remove them from fields, forests and anywhere else where wars were waged.
The United Nation's 1,100-year removal estimate, and war in the Middle East and Ukraine where battlefields are mined daily, has prompted NATO to enlist an international scientific group — including two Franklin & Marshall College professors — to create an effective, inexpensive means of eliminating the sensitive explosives.
"It's a sinister, evil genius that goes into making these things," said Visiting Professor of Geosciences Tim Bechtel, holding a small, inactive Russian landmine between his fingers. It looked more like a child's toy than a deadly concussive device.
Bechtel recently returned from a meeting at the University of Florence in Italy, where the group outlined the three-year project funded by a NATO Science for Peace and Security Program grant. Its members are charged with building remote-controlled robots that non-experts — such as farmers or members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — could be trained to use. The group is divided into teams, each assigned with developing a specific part to the robot.
"We're going to identify the best available landmine detection sensors for the robot," Bechtel said of his task. "Whether that's radar or metal detectors or infrared — there are many ways to do it. No single device works in all conditions, so we want to test all available devices to find the best combination of sensors."
Bechtel, who for 15 years has worked with another international team to develop a holographic mine-detector sensor, said highly sensitive sensors are necessary because many mines planted in the ground since the beginning of World War II have plastic casings; there is little to no metal in them.
"There is very little indication they are there until someone steps on one," he said.
Militaries deploy two types of mines: anti-tank mines, typically large, round and used to disable vehicles; and anti-personnel mines, small — some baseball size or smaller — designed not to kill, but to maim.
"If you kill somebody, they're not fighting any more. If you blow off their leg, they're not fighting and the three or four other people who have to care for that person are not fighting," Bechtel said.
Anti-personnel mines are everywhere across the landscape of former and current conflicts, but they are specifically planted in strategically important civilian areas, such as farm fields or near water supplies, the professor said.
"If there is a critical well in a village, whoever controls the village will mine it and know where the mines are so they can use the water," Bechtel said. "If they were to lose the village to the opposing combatants, then somebody will get maimed, if not killed, trying to get water."
NATO also tasked Bechtel with researching the terrain in eastern Ukraine, where war is currently raging between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians.
"That's where the most mines are put into the ground every day," he said. "We're working with a Ukrainian colleague who's talking with their State Emergency Services to learn what varieties of mines they are finding in Ukraine. I have a good suspicion there are going to be a lot of Russian-made mines, anti-tank and anti-personnel."
Bechtel and his student researcher — he will need three during the course of the project — expect to trek to coal-mining northeastern Pennsylvania, where soil moisture content and chemistry is similar to eastern Ukraine, also a coal region.
"We're going to be doing geological, soil and climatological mapping, looking at what kind of soil conditions we can expect in eastern Ukraine, because that's going to dictate what kind of sensors are most effective," Bechtel said.
Dorothy Merritts, the Harry W. & Mary B. Huffnagle Professor of Geosciences and chair of F&M's Earth and Environment Department, is an expert on the geological landscape in northeastern Pennsylvania. She is on the team to consult and advise, helping Bechtel and his students interpret the soil data they collect.
"I'm brought in to help them understand the materials the mines are buried in," Merritts said. "The soils in a given region, as in Pennsylvania or the Ukraine, have predictable properties based on the geology and climate of that region."
Bechtel said the goal of the international group's research is to build a sensor-laden robot mine-detector that works almost anywhere, is cheap, lightweight and easy to use by non-experts, although expert teams will do the actual mine removal.
To test the sensors' effectiveness on Ukrainian battlefields, Bechtel and his research students will visit Pennsylvania's coal region to monitor ease of use by non-experts.
"We'll be taking groups of students — focus groups, if you will — giving them minimal training and having them detect mines," he said. "We'll be able to go and test sensors in a realistic setting not too far from F&M."
The photos above and below show some aspects of manual landmine detection and clearance today. The sensor-laden robot is expected to significantly reduce the danger.