Science Questions

Could a drone be used to detect landmines?

Mon, 28th Sep 2015

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Paul asked:

Could a drone be used to detect landmines, either by detecting soil disturbance or metal detection?


We put Paul's question to tech investor Peter Cowley

Peter - Yes, that makes lots of sense. I mean, yes it’s very topical to talk about Drone swarmsdrones. First, we got to look at what a landmine is and there's a variety of them from the small anti-personnel ones to the larger anti-tank ones which are very small. Over the years, they’ve been adapted or developed so that they have very little metal in them because metal is detectable with a metal detector etc. which is the old way of doing it. So, one way would be with a metal detector but these detector had a very big coil antenna so the drone have to be very big. It has to be very close to the ground, about 10 centimetres. Now, there's no way a drone…

Kat - That would be a giveaway.

Peter - …can fly 10 centimetres. They could run into a daisy or something or run into a rock. So, there are other ways of doing it. Dogs are used but you can't have a god in the drone, honeybees, rats, there's a Gambian rat and none of these work at all. We mentioned gamma rays earlier on. There's a gamma ray detector but that’s quite large. Micropower impulse radars, etc. and there's acoustic ways of doing it. So in principle, there will be something somewhere but the bigger question is, once you’ve detected it, what are you going to do with it?

Kat - You still got to go and dig it out.

Peter - You’ve got to pinpoint it exactly and mark it or you’ve got to set it off.

Kat - We know it’s in that field.

Peter - Exactly.

Chris - There's a company who we interviewed. It was about 10 years ago here on the Naked Scientists in Denmark and they have invented genetically modified landmine detecting cress. When these plants grow on an area of land which is contaminated with trinitrotoluene otherwise known as TNT, or other nitro group derivatives that it gives off, they’ve programmed into the plants. They have a genetic switch which it causes them to make anthocyanin which is the same stuff that makes beetroot go deep red. So the leaves pick up a lot of this stuff and turn to deep red colour. Apparently, it was pretty good but I haven't seen any more reports since so I don’t know if it’s one of those amazing stories that kind of got started and then they perhaps run out of funding or something.

Peter - The question was on drones actually.

Chris - Well, I was just looking for or thinking outside of the box.

Kat - But if you had a colour change cress, it’s a long game. You plant the cress and then you can fly the drone…

Peter - With a simple camera system.

Chris - You land your drone on the red spot and off it goes, and bang with the landmine demined.


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Anti personal land mines are designed to be as near invisible as possible, the best solution I know is to get herds of sheep or some similar animal roaming the area but unfortunately the "animals" are often children.
Stalin's generals used to use prisoners of war or criminal battalions but these methods are frowned on today syhprum, Fri, 16th Jan 2015

bombing minefields or bombarding them with artillery can also be effective, but expensive. chiralSPO, Fri, 16th Jan 2015

Landmines are a double menace, not only to an invader but also longterm to the eventual victor. On the other hand they are a very useful unmanned defence in the short term. So how about a biodegradable landmine?  alancalverd, Fri, 16th Jan 2015

That sounds difficult to engineer, possibly easier to design a mine to self destruct after a certain period of time (a small biodegradable fuse or something of that sort could allow for a months to years timescale required for warfare)

The only bio-degradable explosive charge I can think of would be something along the lines of ammonium nitrate combined with vegetable oil or biodiesel. There are some bacteria that consume nitroarenes (like TNT) but I don't think that's something that can be depended on... chiralSPO, Fri, 16th Jan 2015

Keep in mind that whatever method you use, it should be 100% effective.

The downdraft from a chopper may not be enough to activate the mine.  Then one would hope the chopper itself wouldn't sustain too much damage.  Plus, helicopters are expensive to fly.

I'm seeing notes of remote controlled dozers and other equipment for de-mining.  One could proabably program them to do a GPS controlled grid pattern over the entire mine field. CliffordK, Sat, 17th Jan 2015

Not entirely impossible - we use focussed ultrasound for medical imaging and treatment, and sonic weapons and aircraft detectors turn up from time to time. However I think the most effective treatment for a large, uninhabited area would be the sonic pulse from a fuel-air bomb - cheap, reliable, and with a lot of available energy. If this can be ignited in a controlled burn it might be possible to drive the pressure wave preferentially downwards.

In an inhabited area, the remote-controlled bulldozer sounds preferable, either using GPS or a simple drive-by-wire controller.

Helicopter downwash can indeed trigger some antipersonnel mines and the use of large choppers is best avoided. alancalverd, Sat, 17th Jan 2015

Robot stompers are what's needed, ones which can be guaranteed to jump up and down on every square inch of ground. David Cooper, Sat, 17th Jan 2015

The last I heard the americans had a satellite capable of detecting metal to within twenty meter under the earths surface.
A very expensive satellite that costs a lot to fire up.

Still It would be a matter of keeping the weight under the allowance for the craft.

Drones are mainly used as surveillance craft due to the weight allowance, they don't weigh very much and therefore cannot carry much weight with them. also I believe they spend a lot of time gliding in order to expand their distance per tank of fuel.
Adding a geological device capable of penetrating the earths surface may be too much weight and endanger the craft unless a lot of time was spent miniaturising the device. Or alternatively using a much larger drone? domkarr, Sun, 22nd Feb 2015

what about a machine that carries a powerful electro-magnet to suck them straight up from the ground? or a machine that is designed as an impenetrable ball that can safely roll over a mine field? domkarr, Sun, 22nd Feb 2015

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