New Technology for Humanitarian Demining
By Russell Gasser and Terry Thomas
Issue 4.1 | February 2000 | Information in this issue may be outdated. Click here to link to the most recent issue.
spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on high-tech research over the
last few years, local humanitarian deminers still use traditional prodders
and metal detectors. The biggest recent technical innovation has been mechanical
vegetation clearance which was mostly developed in the field and bypassed
the research route.
understanding of technology choice makes it clear why this has happened
and can help us avoid following too many dead-ends in the future. Research
should generate viable new options and technology choice then helps select
which one to use. However, the critical word is viable. Innovations
that are very expensive, risky, hard to fit into existing work practices
or that do not address high priority problems are not viable. If the innovation
process is not driven by potential users but is instead controlled
by distant outsiders it will usually be fruitless. An experienced field
practitioner always has as much to offer as the expert in the laboratory;
it is the combination that is most productive. In humanitarian demining
research such a combination is rarely found.
Technology Unit (DTU) in the School of Engineering at Warwick University has
a methodological approach to humanitarian demining research. After 12 years
of active research in appropriate and sustainable technology with project
partners in 10 developing countries, new work is based on what has been learned
about the types of technology that really promote development and are suitable
for use in these countries In all its humanitarian demining research, contact
with organizations in the field and visits to mined areas are used to keep
the end user as an important partner in the whole process of engineering R&D.
This keeps the focus on types of technology that actually work in the field
and that deminers really want, though of course it does not mean that every
idea is successful. As part of a university noted for its excellence in high-technology
research and engineering, the DTU takes full advantage of access to information
and expertise in a wide range of technical disciplines.
To date, much
of the DTU humanitarian demining program has focused on the development of
equipment that can be produced in heavily mined countries. An independent
British charity, the Development Technology Workshop (DTW) has been established
to undertake much of the technology transfer work; one notable success has
been helping local people establish the Cambodian Demining Workshop (CDW)
in Phnom Penh. The CDW is a Cambodian small business that now employs 23 local
people, 60 percent of them with disabilities and half of them women. The CDW
products are prodders, visors, protective clothing and other demining equipment.
Similar small-scale production can easily be established in other heavily
mined countries where there is demand, the technologies used are all transferable.
The CDW and DTW between them also manufacture (in Britain and Cambodia) the
"Tempest" vegetation mini-flailsthese radio-controlled machines
weigh two tons and three are currently working with demining NGOs in Bosnia
choice often involves comparing high-tech, imported equipment to traditional
locally made alternatives that are not as fast, but are much cheaper.
In humanitarian demining the choice has to be between different speeds
and costs and not just different levels of safety. Using less safe equipment
just because it is cheaper has effectively been ruled out as there is
an over-riding requirement to protect professional deminers. Risk assessment
methods clearly show that rapid clearance of as few as 80 percent of the
mines in an area could halve the casualties over the next 20 years compared
with the current near-perfect but very slow method (see Mine
Action - The Management of Risk). The large decrease in civilian casualties would be
accompanied by a small increase in deminer casualties and that simply
is not acceptable.
In contrast to
most trades, deminers must be able to use all their tools and equipment effectively
from the first day they work in a live area. A humanitarian deminer cannot
start as an apprentice with a few limited tools and skills and gradually increase
both. Working alongside and watching an experienced deminer is also dangerous
and unacceptable. It places a heavy demand on the designers of tools and equipment
to avoid any operating methods that depend too heavily on detailed experience
or having gradually learned a subtle feel or complex instructions.
There are similar
problems in the innovation process itself. Testing prototype demining equipment
is nearly impossible. Prototype safety equipment, and demining tools that
are not quite good enough yet, or maybe have hidden faults, cannot be tested
thoroughly in live areas. This is becoming even more important as microprocessors
start to be used in almost all metal detectors. The computer software that
the microprocessors use cannot be exhaustively tested to prevent against all
eventualities. Limited testing with surrogate mines is the best that can be
done, but tests on a small number of items cannot guarantee adequate performance
under all circumstances. This is a strong argument in favor of improving existing
tools that work well and abandoning work on very complex new equipment no
matter how good it may promise to be.
Much of what
has been written on "appropriate technology" deals with technologies
for production. Humanitarian demining produces land that is free from mines.
This view of demining as "producing" usable land can be helpful
in looking at which technologies are likely to succeed. If a technology looks
completely unsuitable for use in a production environment in a factory in
a particular mined country then it will probably not be suitable for use in
the field. Improved productivity (increase in area cleared per dollar) is
a very important measure of demining equipment and has often been overlooked
in research programs that choose instead increased sophistication.
that function well in a laboratory may not be suitable for local deminers
familiar with simpler methods such as manual prodding. If operating the
equipment is confusing and complex, there is every reason for a deminer
to fail to trust his or her own memory of how to use it. Local humanitarian
deminers may choose to ignore advanced demining tools and continue to
use trusted methods. Failure to remember the correct operating instructions
could result in injury or death.
Some of the effects
of making demining technology choices are a lot less obvious. For example,
many mine field vegetation clearance machines can only work where there is
good road access and where the site is reasonably level. In many countries
the flatter and more productive land, especially where there is good road
access, is already owned by the richest families or the local war-lords. If
mechanically assisted methods could be used to clear mines and UXO from only
two-thirds of the agricultural land in a particular village a demining agency
could well decide that the other third is "uneconomical'' to clear. The
richest families with the best land may get all of their land cleared. The
poorest families may get none. Conflicts and divisions within the village
will be made worse, yet the demining agency (and the designers of the equipment)
may be pleased at the overall increase in efficiency of mine clearance that
their choice of mechanization has achieved.
is well known, humanitarian demining is not one single activity, nor is
it done in the same way in different countries. Far too much high technology
research has focussed on finding a single universal mine detector that
will have a single operating procedurethis is a military requirement
more than a humanitarian demining requirement. Military mine field breaching
and divisions within the village will be made worse, yet the demining
agency (and the designers of the equipment) may be pleased at the overall
increase in efficiency of mine clearance that their choice of mechanization
As is well known,
humanitarian demining is not one single activity, nor is it done in the same
way in different countries. Far too much high technology research has focussed
on finding a single universal mine detector that will have a single operating
procedurethis is a military requirement more than a humanitarian demining
requirement. Military mine field breaching and humanitarian land clearance
by local people working for a demining organization are so different that
equipment suitable for one is generally not useful for the other. Unless the
results of commercial demining research are useful to the large and lucrative
military market it is difficult to justify funding to pay for it. Humanitarian
demining has been expected to benefit from spin-off from military research
but this has been very limited. The cost and complexity of military equipment
and the military breaching requirement for rapid detection even if small mines
are occasionally overlooked are not compatible with humanitarian land clearance.
Crucial decisions about humanitarian research program are taken by expert
advisers who have a background in military engineering or explosive ordnance
disposal. Inevitably, the equipment that is most familiar in presentation
and function seems more attractive, at least initially. Hence there is a built-in
bias in high-tech research towards equipment suitable for military use. Instead
of humanitarian demining equipment benefiting from spending on military research
the reverse has happened and the main beneficiaries of most humanitarian high-tech
demining research have been military deminers, in both their combat and peacekeeping
The need for
emergency demining programs will continue, but humanitarian demining is already
moving toward a different role, that of being a partner in long term development.
Donor funding for humanitarian demining is starting to shrink, in the future
more will have to be done with less funding and the cost-effective developmental
approach will become more important. In emergency aid, the needs are acute
so supplies, experts and technologies are parachuted in as fast as possible.
In development, hard lessons have convinced most people that the only way
to get the right answers is a sound collaboration between local peoplethe
insiders who really understand the local problemsand outsiders who have
specific expertise. There is a wealth of experience in managing this change
from emergency response to development work in such areas as health care,
water supply, low-cost housing and agriculture. Humanitarian demining organizations
can benefit from the hindsight of other agencies and avoid repeating some
of the painful mistakes that have been made in the last 20 years. Some aspects
of developmental work are already familiar to many demining organizations,
- working within
available funds even when they are insufficient.
on existing knowledge and technologies instead of starting from scratch
all the people who will benefit right from the beginning so that resources
are not misused.
Demining is in
a leading position as many other development activities cannot start until
the land is cleared, however it has similar requirements to any development
work in needing the right tools and equipment. These must be:
and good value.
- what the
user wants and can understand.
for local use exactly where they are needed.
- easy to maintain
The need to develop
new tools and techniques, not just select from a range of existing alternatives,
imposes further restrictions. Engineering research can only be done effectively
where there is access to funding, trained personnel, information, technical
data, supplies of parts for building prototypes, workshops and test facilities.
This inevitably means that Europe and North America dominate; the participation
of professional researchers in mined countries is often underrated or ignored.
in the richest countries has led to remarkable advances such as computers
and mobile phones, but it has also narrowed the thinking of many researchers
to the point where the only way forward is increased complexity. In marketing
terms, more features give the user more choice. By contrast, "Advanced
Simplicity," the harnessing of the latest technology and thinking to
make equipment simpler has generally been ignored. In demining research, finding
out what deminers in the field really want has all too often become a token
exercise; a good understanding of field conditions can only be gained from
visiting mined areas at every opportunity. For example, the many ideas for
equipment that use a colour-display computer screen to warn the operator of
mines are doomed to fail in some countries. Not only are these screens unreadable
in bright tropical sunlight, they currently have a limited temperature range,
are expensive and fragile, and mean that the deminer must focus their visual
attention away from the ground and vegetation that they are clearing. Yet
in the lab they seem such a good idea. What is lacking is the exchange of
ideas between engineers, deminers and people who have experience of the problems
standards for any new demining tool or equipment, in addition to the more
general criteria above, are that it:
- works in
the lab to humanitarian demining specifications and continues to work when
taken into the field.
- takes into
account the realities of humanitarian demining SOPs and the local deminers'
something that deminers somewhere really need and actually want to use.
the demining process by making it faster, safer or cheaper.
are three well-tried ways of producing more effective tools:
Design all-new tools.
Upgrade traditional or existing tools, such as improving metal
Scale down or adapt equipment from allied fields, like agricultural
and universities in Europe have generally concentrated on the first route
at great cost and with little to show. Commercial companies and NGOs have
sometimes followed the second route and made good progress. Some demining
organizations and specialist NGOs have taken the third route and achieved
some remarkable successes.
It has become
common to think that technological solutions to demining problems are difficult
to achieve and require a lot of time and money. In fact the opposite is true.
The record of individuals and organizations with few resources and tiny budgets
making major improvements is quite outstanding. Successful vegetation clearance
and building-rubble-clearance equipment has been built by demining organizations
for their own use from commercial off-the-shelf components; visors and protective
clothing are now made in several countries by local workshops and metal detectors
are now better than a few years ago. In parallel, improved management and
refined SOPs have led to a large increase in deminer efficiency and a reduction
in accident rates.
If we persist
in spending vast sums of money tackling the wrong problems (e.g. detecting
buried mines in level lawns), if we look only to technical experts with very
narrow specializations and if we ignore any development issues, then we can
expect another few years of fruitless effort and wasted money. The choice
expressed are personal and not necessarily the views of the DTU of the University
Development Technology Unit
School of Engineering
University of Warwick
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