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Rooting Out Underground Death Traps

Efforts to remove mines in Afghanistan have not been very effective. Some 300 people are killed or wounded by the devices every month. A German research team hopes to change this by improving mine detector accuracy.


Removing landmines in Afghanistan requires accurate detection devices

Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The International Red Cross estimates that 200,000 Afghans have been killed or severely wounded by mines planted during the 23 years of conflict.

On average between five and 10 people are injured in mine blasts daily. And some 10 million mines are still suspected of being scattered across the country.

Despite extensive efforts by the United Nations Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA) and other international anti-mine organizations to remove the deadly devices, many of the landmines go undetected, buried just below the ground’s surface. Often they are only discovered when it is too late -- when someone steps on them.

Every undetected mine a death trap A joint team of researchers from Berlin and the European Commission are now working together with the United Nations Mine Action Service to improve the efficiency of mine detectors. Under the guidance of the Berlin-based Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing, the group has developed a series of tests designed to determine which internationally manufactured mine detection devices are most accurate in locating anti-personnel mines. Their results are crucial for determining which detector will be used in the future for landmine removal in Afghanistan and other heavily mined countries.

One of the main problems in mine detection, says project leader Christina Müller, is the lack of an internationally recognized standard for detectors. There are so many different models on the market, and each has a different level of accuracy and different capabilities.

As a result the United Nations and other international anti-mine organizations have no information on which mine detector is best suited for use in Afghanistan.

"Up until now there has been no generally recognized standard for testing mine detectors," Müller told the daily Berliner Zeitung earlier this week. All previous studies of leading mine detection devices have been compiled independently by the manufacturers.

"But it doesn’t help much if the detectors are only tested in laboratories and if the manufacturer’s own personnel conduct the tests," she said. It’s much more important to see how efficient the detectors are in real life conditions with the actual de-miners working in their own countries, she said.

Minenfeld in Afghanistan

A pair deminers in an Afghanistan mine field

Real life testing conditions

That's exactly the reason Müller and her team traveled to Kabul, where they handed seven leading mine detectors to local Afghan de-miners to sweep actual known mine fields. The seven devices had already been tested in 1999 during an Afghan Detector Trial sponsored by the United Nations. Among the detectors were three from Germany and one each from Italy, Australia, Austria and the United Kingdom.

Each detection device was tested on several fields, representing different topographical features including varying degrees of electromagnetic interference and chemical contamination.

Ranking accuracy and usability

The German researchers noted how many mines each of the seven detectors located and how often they indicated mines where none were buried. They also compared how well the detectors worked in different types of soil composition and with different sizes of mines. In addition, each of the Afghan de-miners was asked to rate the ease of usability for the different detectors.

Of the seven detectors, only two succeeded in finding all the mines. When it came to usability, the local de-miners found that Ceia detectors from Italy were the easiest to work with.

The United Nations then announced it would purchase a large number of Ceia detectors for immediate use in Afghanistan. The new detectors should make mine removal efforts in the country safer and more efficient, the U.N. Mine Action Service says.

In the process of mine detecting even a slight oversight can mean the loss of life or limb. "After searching a field, the ground should be fully mine-free," Müller told the Berliner Zeitung. Poor quality detectors cannot guarantee this.

Standardization of mine detectors

There is a great need for a standardization of mine detectors, says Müller. According to U.N. statistics, 110 million landmines are buried throughout the world, and new ones are being added every year.


Children are most often the victim of landmines

At the launch of a four-day international mine awareness conference in Kabul at the end of July, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai stressed the importance of mine detection and removal. "We are talking about something that people all over Afghanistan are touched by every day," he announced while pledging to work to make his country safe from mines.

In Afghanistan alone, 7,000 people work as de-miners, detecting and disabling mines across the country. But even with the help of international organizations, the U.N. says they will need seven years to remove all the mines. And without high quality detectors, such a task is nearly impossible.

Detecting for the future

Moreover, each new generation of mines brings with it a whole new set of technological challenges for mine-detectors and researchers. As a result, they are constantly having to update their detectors and their accuracy if they are to find all the different types of mines buried throughout the world.

Afghanistan is a good example of the challenges the mine detectors face in the future. "Even in the old mines scattered about the country, metal pieces are only as large as the tip of a ballpoint pen," Müller says. Such small bits are easy for a normal detector to overlook. "In the meantime, there are also newer mines that are completely made of plastic and escape detection by an ordinary mine detector."

The mine detectors of the future will most likely have to combine different types of detection methods. Müller expects them to rely more on radar and thermograpics and less on the traditional metal detecting technology. However, she says that both types will need to be used in the future, because old metal-based mines continue to be a problem in much of the world.

In September at a conference sponsored by the German Institute for Materials Research and Testing, a Belgian-Danish-German team will present the first prototype of such a combination detector. If it goes over well among the experts, it may soon be tested under real-life conditions by the Berlin-based team.

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