Issue 6.1, April 2002
by Geoff Coley, Canadian Center For Mine Action Technologies (CCMAT)
"Technology Has Not Delivered!"
A great rallying cry perhaps, but a misguided one. Of course technology has not delivered. Technology must be delivered. But before you dismiss this as mere semantics, consider that technology and demining have generally (but not always) been addressed in one of three ways:
Very seldom has technology been inserted into the mine field in a way that investigates the needs of the deminers, tests (and proves) the idea in a useful, realistic way and escorts the idea into the real world. There are examples of good execution, but there are many more examples of poor execution. In addition, we tend to think of technology only as the startling new, never-before-seen high-tech widgets that solve all our problems with a wave of the hand. It is not technology we should blame; it is the delivery mechanism that has failed.
Rubbish, you say? How about a few examples where technology has been successfully delivered? Where would today’s deminers be without standard metal detectors? While today’s versions are essentially refinements of an old idea, some of today’s models are great strides ahead of their ancestors. Everyone wants a quick, easy fix to the problem of detection with new technologies. Detection is an immensely difficult problem to which there is no quick, easy solution. Great strides have been made in the past few years in a number of detection fields. One of these advances has been the elimination of certain impractical avenues. There are a few detection technologies that are now remarkably successful at finding buried landmines. The problem is that they are also remarkably effective at finding other things leading to too many false alarms. The technology has not delivered? How many metal detectors find only mines with no false alarms? Has that technology failed to deliver? Are we prepared to stop using metal detectors? More difficult problems will be more difficult to solve but may yield more significant advances if they are not cut off prematurely.
So we have one old technology that was successfully delivered, and some new ones that we should patiently wait for, as they may eventually bear fruit. Are there no recent examples of successfully-delivered technologies? How about three examples?
Delivering Technology: Three Examples
CCMAT, a Canadian government organization, has been active for just over three years in the research, development and delivery of technologies for mine action. Let’s follow three examples of CCMAT projects—one from mechanical demining equipment, one from explosive demolition equipment and one from victim assistance—as they went from idea, through development and testing, and finally into the field.
Mechanical equipment for humanitarian demining got a bad rap a decade or so ago. Mechanical equipment was supposed to be the magic silver bullet that would quickly, easily and safely demine vast areas. Few magic solutions work, however, and this was no exception. Hugely expensive military equipment was modified. Novel new commercial machines were created. Equipment was thrown into a variety of theatres, including many that lacked the infrastructure to support heavy equipment. Not surprisingly, many of these machines failed. Some were unable to survive the rigors of explosive blasts. Some needed too much maintenance or too much operator training. Others simply couldn’t do what was required, especially when matched against the demanding expectations of the day. The few mechanical devices that did succeed generally succeeded at debrushing or some other task that didn’t involve actually touching mines. These were largely overshadowed by the failures, which, as always, received the most press. A huge body of opinion quickly developed that said that mechanical equipment had no business in humanitarian demining. It has taken a long time for that opinion to soften.
In the fall of 1999, CCMAT produced a "Scoping Study for Humanitarian Demining Technologies." This document examined detection, neutralization, protection, victim assistance and "enabling" technologies. Comparisons were made between user needs and capabilities both within the CCMAT and the Canadian commercial arena. Conclusions were made about what technologies were needed that CCMAT was capable of either developing or of shepherding through to the mine field. Like any useful guide, the conclusions of the CCMAT scoping study have had to change to accommodate new information, but the basic premise has been maintained: what do they need, and what can we do?
This basic first step—examining what the users need and what you have the ability to provide—is often overlooked in the eagerness to leap right into an exciting development program. This is the source of machines that work nicely on a large billiard table but get stuck against the first rock they encounter.
Mechanical Mine Field Equipment Technology
One of the areas CCMAT chose to address was the test and evaluation of mechanical equipment for ground preparation. Rather than simply selecting a number of similar machines (flails, for example), CCMAT chose four completely different types of equipment. A standardized test area was developed that did not represent every possible environment, but gave credible, repeatable and realistic (if limited) test conditions. Recognizing the difficulties that accompany testing with real landmines, CCMAT developed inert but highly realistic "mechanical reproduction mines." Thus, CCMAT was able to safely and effectively test each of the machines against hundreds of realistic targets in scientifically controlled but representative conditions. Machines that performed well enough might be taken further along the track toward the mine field. It is also very important to have the testing done or recognized by a disinterested third party. The data is only credible when there is no conflict of interest, and CCMAT had no stake whatsoever in any of the machines that would be tested.
Four machines were selected for the first iteration of the project. Each was provided with some development funding to bring it to the point where its potential could be evaluated. Of the four machines, one was eliminated in the earliest stages of testing. This was considered a success; machines that are incapable of performing the desired task should be filtered out long before they are sent into a mine field and before they have extensive development funds assigned. Two other machines performed better but not well enough to consider further development or testing. One machine—ProMac BDM48—was found to perform extremely well.
The ProMac BDM48 managed to destroy over 99 percent of the mechanical reproduction mines in its test program. While this result was exceptional, it was not considered adequate proof. After all, these were not real mines, and the test environment was not representative of more than a certain subset of real mine field conditions.
A location was selected for further testing in the real world. Mounted on a hydraulic track-hoe, the BDM48 system would require certain logistical support, so certain parts of the world were easily eliminated as potential test sites. The Thailand Mine Action Center (TMAC), having existing contacts with CCMAT allowed the arrangement of in-theatre testing at a location well-equipped to handle equipment of this type.
Before real mines and real mine fields could be tackled, however, the CCMAT process ensured that the system, and more importantly, the operator, would be properly protected from the hazards of a mine field. Consultations with TMAC revealed the list of threats that might realistically be encountered in the intended area. This list, which included blast and fragmentation mines, AT mines, artillery shells and a range of other UXO, was used to specify an armor requirement for the BDM48. Test pieces of armor were subjected to artillery shell bursts, while the entire system was tested against a variety of other threats. An instrumented Hybrid III mannequin in the vehicle demonstrated that the operator would be safe. All of this was accomplished before the system ever left CCMAT.
Armed with the extensive test results, including (perhaps especially) the armor protection tests, the CCMAT team was able to sit face-to-face with the TMAC people and confidently discuss the proposed in-theatre tests. One of the critical parts of this section of the CCMAT program was the use of intentionally planted mines in the mine field. Ensuring a known number and type of targets in known conditions, meaningful results could be obtained quickly and efficiently. Randomly applying a machine over a suspected mine field would only have ensured random results. What would a blast mean? Was it a piece of UXO? A mine? What type? What depth? What condition?
TMAC operators were trained, test areas were selected and prepared, and the BDM48 was tested first with mechanical reproduction mines (to ensure continuity of results from the Canadian environments) and then with real mines. It was important to use TMAC personnel and TMAC procedures as much as possible to be sure that the system could be integrated into their processes. There is little benefit in a system that can only do the job when operated in a laboratory manner; it must be compatible with existing demining operations.
To assist with this integration, CCMAT developed a draft Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that reflected the machine and the existing SOPs. Rather than simply dropping a piece of equipment in someone’s lap, it is important to help make it a part of their overall operation.
Results were consistent with the earlier inert tests. The Canadian government was pleased to respond to TMAC’s request, and they made a donation consisting of a complete system plus a spare working head. The system has been hard at work in the mine fields along the Thai-Cambodian border ever since.
The key to ensuring that technology does get delivered is that you must complete the loop. Find out what the users need. Decide what you (realistically) have the ability to do. Do the laboratory level testing and adequate "field" testing to make sure you have credible results. Make sure the data is not tainted by any real or perceived conflict of interest. Find the right place and the right contacts for real-world trials. Make sure the system and humans are properly protected from the hazards of mine fields. Make the connections with potential donors. All before you leave home. Once you arrive at the mine field, involve the Mine Action Center (MAC) people. Confirm your previous data. Get controlled live data. Be sure the data is still untainted. Complete the connection between the users and the donors. Technology delivered.
Demolition Material Technology
In-situ demolition of landmines should be a relatively simple matter. Identify the mine. Place an explosive charge. Blow it up. Simple. What is there to improve about the technology? How about making it cheaper? How about making the charge easier to ship and store? How about making the charge less prone to disappearance and misuse?
After working on a research program for the Canadian government, MREL came up with FIXOR, a novel demolition explosive. They had a solution, but was there a problem? Along with MREL’s own research, CCMAT helped to ensure that there was, in fact, a niche that FIXOR might fill. For its own part, CCMAT could provide help with test and evaluation and with the development of SOPs (assuming successful test and evaluation). Again, the whole process had to be considered for the successful delivery of the technology: identify user needs, develop through testing, escort it into the field for real-world testing and finally, link up with a donor.
After testing FIXOR against a variety of targets at MREL and CCMAT facilities, CCMAT made arrangements through its contacts in Kosovo to bring the product into the field for further testing. Controlled tests done in cooperation with the UN Mine Action Coordination Center ultimately resulted in a donation of several thousand charges. FIXOR has since been provided to demining operations in Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mozambique, Cambodia, Zambia and Thailand. Technology delivered.
Victim Assistance Technology
Finally, let us examine a work-in-progress. CCMAT is involved in the development, test and evaluation and delivery of a new prosthetic foot. We can not yet point to the device being used, but it is following the same path described for the two previous examples. As with the other two technologies, CCMAT worked with the manufacturer—in this case, Niagara Prosthetics and Orthotics (NPO)—to ensure that there was a need that would be met by this promising new development. Since many conventional prosthetic feet are awkward and lack the feel or action of a real foot, and since they are often too expensive, too complex and too short-lived for many mine-affected countries to bear, the need was clear.
With CCMAT’s assistance, NPO has been developing and testing the Niagara Foot in controlled laboratory conditions. Clinical (field) trials started in November 2001 in a cooperative program involving NPO, CCMAT and TMAC with the generous patronage of the Thai Royal Family. While not yet completely through the technology insertion cycle, the Niagara Foot is clearly following the same pattern as the two previous examples. Technology being delivered.
There are certainly other ways that technology can be successfully delivered. The key to success, however, is the same. Get the user involved at the start–-what do they need? Decide what you can do. Get potential donors involved. Do controlled testing. Do testing with the users. Complete the loop by connecting the users and the donors. And always make sure that your data is not contaminated by a (real or perceived) conflict of interest.
There is one final failure in the successful insertion of technology into the mine fields: the failure of communication. The labs and the manufacturers often fail to get their message across and the end-user community remains unaware of what new or improved technology is out there. Just as importantly, the end users often fail to communicate their needs except in general terms. The labs and the companies often cannot figure out what they are shooting for. In June 2001, CCMAT sponsored a conference that attempted to address this very issue. Improved mechanisms for information exchange are being developed but they will only work if both sides participate. The technology developers have to present their information and seek out the participation of suitable end-users. Meanwhile, the user community needs to present both its needs and the results of its real-world experience and tests. Only when both sides commit to an ongoing effective information exchange will we overcome this final hurdle.
Can technology deliver? No. But technology can be delivered. CCMAT’s program is one example of how it can work.
*All photos courtesy of the author
Niagara Prosthetics And Orthotics