A Teenage Drone Whiz in the Ukraine Hopes to Rid His Country of Land Mines

Using drones equipped with ground penetrating radar (GPR) to locate buried landmines is not a new concept.  More than six years ago, researchers in several countries began designing and manufacturing drones for precisely this purpose. In fact, in several recent conflict zones, private drone companies specializing in landmine detection – sometimes supported by the United Nations and other international agencies – are busy trying to clean up the aftermath of wars that feature large numbers of unexploded mines and other munitions that continue to pose a serious threat to postwar civilian life.

Ukraine is one recent example.  The Ukrainian government estimates that between 27% and 40% of its national territory is already affected by the 3 million landmines laid since the Russian invasion plus additional mines laid in past years of conflict.  Cordoning off that much territory means depriving the country of farm land and the prospects for economic development.  It will take the achievement of peace to allow sustained demining by drones and other methods to make a long-term difference.  In fact, it could take years, even decades, to finally clear the nation of unexploded munitions.

A Canadian company, Draganfly, which specializes in public safety drones, is already conducting limited demining operations in conjunction with the Ukraine Mine Action Center (UMAC).  Company officials say they are mapping and clearing areas in record time, but resource support from UMAC is still scarce, limiting the scope of the operation.  And part of the problem is that both sides are still laying mines.  Even the Ukrainian military, which is desperately resisting the Russian invasion, sees merit in continued mine use to deter the onward march of Russian forces, which operate largely on the ground.

One young man is on a mission to change this equation.  Igor Mychenko, who just turned 17, has recently designed his own landmine detection drone even while active hostilities in his country continue unabated.   In fact, he began working on his drone concept nearly two years ago before the current war began.  But he kept up his design work and actually completed the first of his two prototypes while sheltering in his basement during Russian rocket attacks.  Last year, he received a prestigious award of $100,000 from the Chegg Foundation – among 5,000 applicants from 60 countries.  The Chegg Foundation is eager to see his two prototypes commercialized and deployed – and not just in Ukraine.

Mychenko, who teaches mathematics to fellow high school students online to help support himself, is busy setting about fulfilling his vision of a landmine-free Ukraine.  He says he hopes to have at least one fully developed prototype mass produced ready for sale to the Ukrainian military – and other militaries worldwide – by the year 2025.

Mychenko agrees that the work of companies like Draganfly have barely made a dent in the problem — thus far.   Most deminers in the country, including UMAC, still rely on outmoded, expensive and time consuming methods that expose deminers to harm.  Their efforts typically combine “sappers” armed with metal detectors with specially trained sniffer dogs that can detect the presence of buried munitions. The problem?  Even if the location of mined areas is broadly known, conventional demining teams must often explore these areas slowly to locate the buried munitions, and then dig at a snail’s pace to avoid triggering an explosion.

Sappers must also work in short shifts – a few hours at a time – to preserve their ability to concentrate, and to avoid costly mistakes.  Even so, for every 5,000 mines removed, one sapper is killed and two are injured, demining experts say.

Mychenko says his Quadcopter Demining Drone can greatly speed up the land mine detection and removal process by using GPR to construct a complete map of a suspected mined area, and then, with the help of GPS, precisely locating each buried munition (within two centimeters).  Sappers need not waste time digging in search of mines in a field at random and can also know in advance the type of munition they might be dealing with, adjusting their methods accordingly.

With the right sensors, including magnetometers and thermal imaging cameras, they can also distinguish different types of mines as well as avoid areas of environmental importance that might be too sensitive to explore.

There is strong evidence that drones like Mychenko’s can achieve a two-fer:  Accelerate the pace of the demining work, through proper targeting, while limiting the threat of uncontrolled explosions.  They are also cost-effective, limiting the need to deploy large and cumbersome field teams )including canines) that can easily become exposed to injury.

Foreign companies like Draganfly can surely assist this badly needed effort.  The UN and other agencies are also standing by to assist with funding.  Ultimately, though, it’s up to Ukrainians to commit to peace and to shoulder the burden of their own postwar reconstruction, including a full-scale demining effort.  With dynamic young drone innovators like Igor Mychenko standing by, that process could soon begin.

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