People die or lose limbs daily from stepping on landmines. Most of the victims are civilians, many years after the end of a conflict.German experts have now come up with a fast, efficient landmine detection method.
Landmines pose a constant threat and continue to cause suffering many years after the guns of war have grown silent.
Worldwide, there was an average of 10 casualties per day in 2014, compared with more than one casualty every hour on average in 1999, when people inadvertently stepped on a landmine or other unexploded ordnance, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
More than 100 million unexploded anti-personnel mines are estimated to be in the ground worldwide just waiting silently for inadvertent victims, "including in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Vietnam. Northern Africa even still has landmines from WWII," says Markus Peichl, an engineer and scientist with the German Aerospace Center's (DLR) Microwaves and Radar Institute. Millions more are thought to be stockpiled in military arsenals.
Next, landmines could become a problem in Syria, Peichl told DW.
"Everybody is using landmines there: we're looking at asymmetric warfare there without regular troops, so they use what they can to protect themselves and hurt others," he says.
The DLR Microwaves and Radar Institute outside Munich has discovered a new radar-based technology, the TIRAMI-SAR, for quicker and safer detection of the deadly weapons.
Anti-personnel landmines are prohibited under the 1997 Anti-Personnel Landmine Convention, or Mine Ban Treaty. With 162 signatories, it's one of the world's most widely accepted treaties.
For the first time in landmine detection, personnel could examine areas measuring several hundreds of square meters in just a few minutes using the DLR's invention. Conventional methods - metal detectors, conventional ground-penetrating radars and sniffer dogs - take much longer to cover less ground.
Designed to fit on the load area of a small truck, the radar system is equipped with transmitting and receiving antennas that operate in the ultra-high frequency range - and that's the novelty, says Peichl. "It allows us to discriminate the clutter - that is the echo from the soil itself - from whatever suspicious objects might be in the ground." Soil composition, moisture content, even the material properties of the mines can muddy the performance.
The operators can move the vehicle on safe terrain while the radar scans a nearby area, or move the truck via remote control.
In the next step, objects detected by TIRAMI-SAR can be re-examined in a more targeted way using other sensors.
To increase the reliability of detecting buried landmines or unexploded ordnance, it's helpful to use a type of sensor based on a different physical principle, Peichl explains: "For instance a 'chemical nose' which detects vapors from explosives."
The DLR came up with the new detection device as part of the EU TIRAMISU (Toolbox Implementation for Removal of Anti-Personnel Mines, Submunitions and Unexploded Ordnance) project.
Now past the experimental phase, the DLR researchers need to come up with a more commercial prototype for use in the field. The current device is "made of lab equipment," Peichl says.
While several companies have shown an interest, Peichl points out that humanitarian de-mining is not a big business. "Most systems in use are driven by military interests - it's only as a side effect that the systems will be used for humanitarian purposes."