Issue 6.1, April 2002
Mine Action Technology Now and In The Future:
Is it realistic to expect great leaps forward in technology?
Geneva International
Center for
Humanitarian Demining

 

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In order to realistically predict the future of demining techniques and technologies, past and present technology must first be examined and critiqued.

by Håvard Bach, GICHD

Introduction

The term "mine action" comprises a series of related activities, all aiming to minimize the problem of landmines. Mine action is no longer a simple mine removal process reserved for a few specialized demining organizations. It is a complex process of activities undertaken by many different commercial and non-commercial organizations – both national and international. When I began my demining "career" in the early 90s, we didn’t worry too much about the scope and complexity of the mine problem. We focused on slow and steady removal of landmines. Every village or road cleared was a victory. The appreciation shown by people who were able to come back and cultivate their land without risking being mutilated or killed was sufficient for us to feel that we were doing something useful.

Today, the whole world is more aware of the enormous scope of the problem when seen in the global context. Consequently, 122 countries have signed the Ottawa treaty prohibiting the production, use and export of AP mines. There is a growing consensus about how we should conduct mine action programs–with current technology and methods. The new International Mine Action Standards (IMAS) help us to undertake activities in a safer and more efficient way. Impact surveys help us to define the scope of the problem and enable improved planning of mine action activities. We understand the need to prioritize our clearance activities, and that the impact on people’s lives should be used as a key indicator for priority setting. It is generally accepted that mine risk education programs are effective, especially when coordinated with survey and clearance, and that special attention should be given to the victims of landmines. In brief, we are more efficient and professional in resolving the landmine problem today than we were only a few years ago, and at present we estimate that less mines are being laid than are being removed.

There are, however, two sides to the story. The Ottawa Treaty commits the member states to work towards a "mine free world" by 2009, but there is no realistic relationship between this goal and resources available to meet it. While one solution is to dramatically increase mine action funds, it is also clear that even a tenfold increase of funds will not solve the landmine problem by 2009. Without significant improvements of mine action techniques and efficiency, we must accept that the mine problem will be long-term–perhaps even into the next century. This is unacceptable and vast sums are being spent on developing new technologies, to help speed up the process.

Although mine action technology is more than just clearance technology, I will mainly focus on the latter. We have always realized that current demining techniques are inadequate, and we have aimed for great leaps forward. More than $300 million (U.S.) has been spent on research into faster ways of demining, but the results of all this large-scale research effort are, to say the least, minimal. Why is this? Perhaps we should look at the past to identify how and where we should invest our resources in the future.

Past Research Trends

Program managers in the field have every reason to feel confused and disappointed by the lack of progress. In 1994, shortfalls in current technology had been recognized and researchers were promising new miracle technology within five years. Landmines were recognized as a major humanitarian problem, and there was a build-up of funds and interest to combat them. Research organizations, many of which were already involved in related research, jumped on this wave of public opinion and found easy access to funds. While exploiting this opportunity, they argued

Demining technology development has in the past been incoherent and funds have been wasted as a result. There has been no single entity, but multiple pockets of uncoordinated establishments with their own research agendas. Many donors have either been naive or too swayed by national interests. The demining community has also been unable to provide coherent advice. If technology development had been more institutionalized between field and R&D establishments from the beginning, we could have seen more focused research and less duplication of efforts, and thus less waste of funds. In the future we would benefit from having an organization of specialists who could advise and report coherently on all demining technology – completed, in progress or ready for the field. No real authority would be required, but a mandate by the United Nations (UN) would strengthen the efficiency of work by such an organization. It could become a focal point for donors, researchers and demining organizations on issues related to demining technology. It is important to objectively analyse the mine action sector and provide expert advice on likely trends and development steps.

 strongly among themselves as to who should be funded. Existing research programmes and obvious duplication were often “forgotten” in proposals and many research organisations distorted reality to convince donors. Research into Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is one example. A rough estimate suggests that about 50 research organizations have been involved in developing GPR systems for landmine detection in Europe alone. Was this necessary, or was it a waste of funds? It is of course too easy to put all the blame on research organizations. Many of them were commercial organizations who were jumping on the bandwagon to survive the post-cold war reduction in orders. Donors bear some responsibility, as national interests and “selfishness” sometimes became more important than real achievements. Eagerness to fund national efforts sometimes prevented an objective examination of the research market and the requirements of the field. The same has applied when some donors have funded demining programs or donated equipment “in-kind”.
In the past there was limited interaction between researchers and field operators. Many international conferences have, however, attempted to change this and the distance between them is now less. Today, most researchers better understand field requirements and challenges. However, during many of the conferences that I have attended, I have met ignorance from some

There has been limited understanding about the size of the user market and internal mechanisms controlling the acceptance of new technology into the field. There is a distinct difference between what researchers, manufacturers and donors believe is the user market, and what it actually is. The demining industry is small, and there are limits as to how many machines and sophisticated sensors will be required. Making new and promising technology available to users may not result in immediate major changes. That said, we should perhaps think "new and controversial" if we want to see a real impact of new technology in the field. There are many mechanisms working against field take-up of technology. The end user reluctance is generally high. It may be necessary to introduce new technology and concepts in the field free of charge for demining organisations to see, learn and gain experience. Proven field results may also convince donors, thus increasing their willingness to support new approaches.
researchers who seem more pre-occupied with defending their own research than listening to end users. In their turn, researchers have often complained about conflicting messages from the field. The great dissimilarity in opinion among field staff makes it difficult for the research community to fully understand the real requirements.

Obstacles To the Use of New Technology

Vast amounts have been spent on technology development. By far the largest proportion has been spent to develop military technology, little of which has an application in humanitarian demining. A major part has also been wasted in unrealistic schemes where the lack of results could have been predicted and avoided. However, there have been some targeted and seemingly successful research efforts. We therefore have to ask where those results are, and why those technologies have not appeared in the field.
Researchers test ideas and develop concepts. Their role may not include product development and field-validation. In addition, equipment development is costly and requires a defined user “market”. The demining “market” is unlike other industrial markets in many ways. Specifically, it is small and highly artificial, with market forces driven by other than economic agendas. For example, the prospect of increased efficiency and reduced costs are not always enough to ensure the purchase and use of the equipment. This may be a result of four factors:
1. A demining program is planned by the program manager in-country, and is individual in approach. Many program managers are highly professional within the context of used and proven technology, but feel less confident in the context of new and untried technology. As program managers often receive credit based on the performance of their chosen technology rather than on how cost-effective the program could have been if other technology had been considered, it is understandable that there is some reluctance to make significant changes. Some program managers even seem willing to reject new technologies on principle.
2. There is donor reluctance. Many donors, while willing to fund research and aid programs, will not fund the essential development and trials of the technology, except in the case of well-proven demining concepts. New ideas in prototype form are avoided because they are of high risk. Yet these are the same donors that have committed themselves to rid the world of landmines by 2009.
3. Many demining programs have an underlying aim of building national capacity. This aim overshadows the need for faster demining. It may even be more important to establish a sustainable national demining capacity than to release land quickly. In many countries, this attitude can preclude the consideration of faster and more efficient demining approaches.
4. Choice of equipment is often governed by the country where the equipment is produced. Donors may give in-kind equipment to national or seminational demining programs – if the equipment is produced in the donor country. The end result is sometimes donation of assets that are more of a liability than a cost effective tool. The demining programs could of course reject such donations, but this could be seen as an affront to the donor. It may also be that the demining program manager considers that any equipment is better than nothing.

What About Existing Technologies?

Funds used to improve current demining techniques are many times less than funds used for the development of new technology. Yet improvement to existing technologies has been much more successful in improving current methods than the development of new ones. Despite known limitations, manual mine clearance, mine dog detection and mechanical mine clearance are the preferred techniques today. Manual mine clearance is slow, but it can be applied almost everywhere. Mine dog detection is faster than manual, but there are significant limitations to the application of dogs. Mechanical mine clearance is also fast, but most machines are either unreliable, impractical or both. However, these “old” approaches can be improved and this may be a more sound approach than investing all our funds in something new. I will use vapour detection as one example as, in my opinion, it is one of the most promising technologies.
 
Mine detecting dogs and pouch rats, one technology – two different approaches.

DARPA’s “Dog’s nose” program is aimed at developing a mechanical substitute for the dog. It would be unfair to say that this multi-faceted program has failed, but it still has not managed to develop a vapour detector that could replace the dog. Thanks to DARPA, however, we learned much about vapour, migration, degradation and environmental factors, which also affected the way of using dogs. Dog’s or rat’s noses are still far more sensitive than all current mechanical vapour detectors. Even if this was not the case, dogs or rats have the ability to discriminate between scents in a more efficient way than current vapour detection technology. This is not likely to change in the near future. There are problems with the use of animals for detection, but these can be addressed and minimized with some targeted

Managers must beware of showing a passive attitude towards further development of current technology since the short, medium and even long-term effects may be much greater than that from new technology. There is major potential for improvement within most
current technologies.
research. Recent experiments with standard commercial machinery in support roles is another example. Several demining organizations have successfully undertaken inventive experiments aiming at making use of commercial products to enhance traditional demining methods. Many demining organizations believe that funds are better invested in the improvement of current demining technology than the development of new.
I believe that the approach here should not be “either/or”, but there needs to be a balance between investing in the improvement of current technology and developing new. Let us not forget that there is nothing to suggest that current technology will be replaced in the near future.

Vision 2012

It is always difficult to predict the future. I have therefore dedicated the last part of this article to my vision for 2012. It is a mix of personal hopes and predictions. The reader is free to guess which ones are my hopes and which my predictions.

*All photos courtesy of the author.

Contact Information

Havard Bach
Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining
CP 1300
Avenue de la Paix 7bis
CH-1211 Geneva Switzerland

Tel: 41-22-906-1660
Fax: 41-22-906-1690
E-mail: h.bach@gichd.ch

 

 
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