Engineers in Sri Lanka have come up with a cheap but effective way to locate landmines - a mongoose tethered to a robot!
Landmines are a serious problem. The United Nations estimates that there are over 100 million of them lurking in ground, worldwide. At the moment they are killing or maiming 2000 people every month. Part of the problem is that planting them costs comparatively little - often less than a pound each - but removing them again can cost up to £500, and the best mine clearing personnel can usually cover just 2 square metres of ground per day.
But now help is at hand from an unusual source. University of Moratuwa engineer Thrishantha Nanayakkara and his colleagues have developed a robot which takes a trained mine-finding mongoose for a walk on a leash. The mongoose sniffs out the landmines by detecting traces of TNT which leaching out of mines, whilst the robot makes sure that the ungainly duo cover the ground systematically and thoroughly. The robot keeps a camera trained on its mine-detecting charge so that the operators can see when the animals locate buried ordnance, which they signal by standing up on their hind legs and sniffing.
At $3000 the system is low cost and covers ground quickly compared with other mine-locating strategies. But for those concerned about the welfare of the mongoose, a major plus is that, together, it and the robot weigh less than 10 kilos, which is too light to detonate a mine if it steps on one!