Using Drones to Locate and Safely Remove Land Mines

In the 1920’s, disputes over the constitution of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in the newly formed nation of Yugoslavia began to fester. By 1991, violence between the opposing peoples led to what has been generally termed the Balkan Crisis. In 2001, after the reorganization of internationally accepted states, peace was met. During the conflict, many landmines were laid out as defensive measures. It is estimated that throughout the region are a combined 466 square miles of hidden landmines. It’s not just the Balkans where these hidden landmines lay, they are all over the world. Each year, as people stumble upon them, landmines claim upwards of 20,000 lives.

The only solution is to meticulously search suspected areas for the buried mines and safely remove them. At one point, scientists trained dogs and rodents to sniff out mines. People would follow along the path behind the animals to mark any discovered mines. This resulted in a few problems. Depending on the size of the animal, they could still set off a mine. Also, even though the human team following behind would stick closely to the animal’s path, they could still accidentally step on a mine that was missed and not triggered by the animal. As a new tactic, a team of researchers from Croatia decided to train honeybees to search for the mines.

Professor Nikola Kezic from Croatia’s Zagreb University is an expert on honeybee behaviors and explained that bees have an extraordinary sense of smell. He began by training a handful of bees to associate the scent of the TNT found in landmines with a rewarding sugar water solution. “It is not a problem for a bee to learn the smell of an explosive, which it can then search,” Profesor Kezic said. “You can train a bee, but training their colony of thousands becomes a problem.” After training a large enough number of bees to search for the scent of TNT, they can be released into suspected landmine zones. The bees then search for the scent of TNT with the hope of being rewarded with the sugar water.

Though the bees can find and land on the landmines without causing an explosion, it still meant that human life would have to be put at risk to follow the bees. Considering how fast and erratically bees fly, it would be unreasonable to send a person into the field to track it. Another team led by Profesor Vladimir Risojević from the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina came up with a plan to use drones to monitor the bee’s progress. However, Profesor Risojević said it was still hard to distinguish the bees from the video captured by the drone.

To further the experiment, Profesor Risojević’s team set up simulation bees in an open field to calibrate how the drone’s camera would need to focus. Once calibrated, the images captured by the drone were fed into an AI computer system to analyze. The computer program showed that the drone’s camera was able to identify the spots where the team had placed the decoy bees. The experiment was then repeated with the drone filming live bees in the same field. Again, the images taken by the drone were uploaded to the computer system, and the bee’s flight paths were visible.

The final round in Profesor Risojević’s drone experiment was to release some bees into a field with actual mines. As part of a research center, all of the mines in the field were already accounted for and diffused, but would still release the same scent the bees had been trained to search for. “It’s very difficult for human observers to find these flying bees in this video footage let alone computer vision systems,” Profesor Risojević said. “There were moments when I thought that we are outright crazy for trying to do that but I am pleasantly surprised with the results that we obtained.” Though Profesor Risojević has yet to publish the final results of the drone/bee collaboration, he did say that the drone footage was able to track the bees accurately and that this footage showed that the bees clustered in areas surrounding the mines.

Meanwhile, a team of researchers from Binghamton University in New York came up with a model to use drones alone in the search of hidden landmines. The team from New York used a drone with a much stronger camera system, a FLIR Vue Pro R camera that retails for around $4,000 and is made specifically for drones. As explained on FLIR’s website, “The Vue Pro R gives drone operators and certified thermographers the power to gather accurate, non-contact temperature measurements from an aerial perspective. Every still image the Vue Pro R saves contains accurate, calibrated temperature data embedded in every pixel.” Using infrared technology, the drone was able to identify simulated mines in several environments. These environments included rocky terrain, sand, and a forested zone. And though the researchers knew exactly where the decoy mines were placed, the drone’s camera was able to identify the mines in all environments.

The mine detecting system developed by the team from New York does seem to have a higher level of accuracy than relying on bees. The problem is that the FLIR drone system may be too expensive for some nations to utilize, even though the team has positioned it as a cost effective de-mining tool. As of yet, neither system has been used to locate live landmines. Both systems show potential. The ultimate goal is to find a way to safely clear mines near residential areas while protecting all human life. Drones are ideal for this situation as they can give experts a way to safely plan de-mining protocols.

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