Technology's Promises


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Every technology under development makes big promises. Here are five projects that may someday impact the world of mine action.


by JJ Scott, MAIC

A soldier tests a portable Fido unit during field trials.

Introduction

Peruse any brochure or website that promotes a developing technology and there is one word that will come up repeatedly: promise. Every new gadget promises to vastly improve, simplify or otherwise revolutionize some aspect of modern life, and the products aimed at mine action practitioners are no different. Each promises to make demining quicker, easier, safer or cheaper, and each breakthrough promises to be more earth shattering than the last. I looked into a variety of devices that promise to have an impact on some aspect of mine action, from new mine-detecting sensors to new types of landmine—seven a potential landmine substitute. These projects vary widely in their goals, budgets and feasibility, but all share one common bond: if fed enough money, each promises to forever alter the practice of mine action.

Fido

Dogs are superb at detecting landmines. Their noses are some of the most sensitive detection devices ever created. That is, until they get tired. Or sick. Or it gets too hot outside. All cause dogs’ effectiveness to drop rapidly. Dogs also tend to lose interest in demining as the day wears on, which is an inevitable though particularly dangerous consequence of their assigned task. How might one retain the mine-sniffing benefits of dogs while negating their shortcomings? Nomadics, Inc., with funding from the U.S. Army, is developing a vapor-detecting sensor they call “Fido” that promises to detect mines almost as effectively as a dog but will never get tired, never get sick, never get bored and never get fleas. I queried Mr. John Sikes of Nomadics about his company’s aptly named device, its developmental process and its promises for the future of landmine detection.

I can’t explain exactly how Fido works, for doing so would require me to accurately use words like “collimate,” “borosilicate,” and “pentiptycene,” which I am not prepared to do. However, thanks to Mr. Sikes, I am able to explain what Fido does now and what it might do someday. It turns out that Fido doesn’t specifically detect landmines at all. As a vapor detector, it alerts its user to the presence of trace amounts of chemicals such as TNT—which happens to be the most common explosive used in landmines. Fido is by far the most sensitive detector yet tested, capable of discerning one femtogram (that’s 10-15, or 0.000000000000001 grams) of TNT vapor in a milliliter of air. According to the company’s website, that is equivalent to one drop of fluid in 25 Exxon Valdez-sized tankers.4 Mr. Sikes said that at this level, “on the best days under the best conditions we’re up there with dogs.” This is quite an achievement, but Nomadics hopes to push Fido even harder, until the device can detect one attogram (10-18 grams) of material.4 At that point, dogs might be able to go back to fetching sticks and lying in the sun all day, leaving the mine detection to sensors and the deminers that use them.

Looking ahead to this inevitable day, I asked Mr. Sikes about the miniaturization prospects for Fido. After all, who wants to carry around a sensor device that is heavier or more awkward than it needs to be? Mr. Sikes believes his company “can get the basic technology down to about a cigarette pack size, roughly a pound or so.” Technical problems are not holding them back, he explained, adding, “We probably wouldn’t even need to do any custom electronics, just more of a concentrated effort, but we don’t really have the funding for that right now…” As Mr. Sikes put it, “The problem is that the people who need our technologies the most are going to be able to afford it the least.” Obtaining funds is an all too common problem among inventors and developers, leaving projects to lie fallow until a bit of seed money allows their promises to bloom.

But let us return from this digression to the task at hand: identifying promising technologies. Fido looks like it will be a useful addition to deminers’ toolboxes someday, as the basic technology is sound and operable. Mr. Sikes foresees an area-reduction role for Fido, declaring, “That’s the great thing about this system: it can tell you where the mines are not, so farmers can get back to work…” and other redevelopment projects can get started. Further development (as permitted by funding) will lead to smaller, hardier and more sensitive renditions of the device. Nomadics is currently designing standard handheld detectors using their technology, but that’s not all they are planning. Fido happens to be just the kind of sensor device needed by two other developing technologies: remote explosive detection and robotic mine detection. Both projects are underway, and it is to these that we now turn.

Robotic Snakes

The challenging terrain that deminers often face can severely hinder their ability to carry out vital procedures such as surveying a known or potential minefield. The land might be too steep or overgrown or muddy for a man with a detector or dog to safely maneuver through. How then to determine the presence or location of landmines within the area? One man, Dr. Ian Gravagne of Baylor University, has recently proposed a novel solution: attach mine-detecting sensors to a robotic snake1.

Using a robotic snake as a sensor platform would offer one key advantage over dogs, men or other types of robotic devices: the ability to slither. This unique method of locomotion allows a snake to get places that two- or four-legged critters can’t access. A robotic snake that could faithfully reproduce a real snake’s motions could easily slice through dense foliage, crawl up a steep slope or slosh through a flooded field. Of course, robo-snakes would also work splendidly on level ground, providing the normal benefits of mechanical solutions: they won’t tire, they maintain a known standard of detection, and if they do end up taking one for the team, well, it’s just a few more pieces of shrapnel to dispose of.

Alas, it will be years before robotic snake technology reaches the level it must to prove useful in a minefield. No existing snake prototype could move well enough, carry enough or last long enough to make good on the idea’s promises to mine action. Dr. Gravagne has presented his idea to several interested parties, but the impression they all gave him was, “come back when you’ve got a finished product.” Current prototypes honestly don’t slither all that well, limiting their usefulness to fairly flat areas. They also can’t carry enough weight to accommodate both sensors and batteries—either of which a robotic snake is fairly useless without. Dr. Gravagne said that “while some impressive-looking prototypes exist…the ‘interested’ institutions and individuals do not seem prepared to fund the [research and development] necessary to get practical snake-like devices into mined areas.” It seems that lots of people are intrigued by the possibilities offered by robotic snakes but not interested enough to actually pay for their development.

REST

Robotic snakes would provide an effective method of bringing sensors into contact with the scent of explosives, but what if a deminer could instead bring the scent to the sensor? Proving that such a scenario is not only possible but also useful, the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) is currently facilitating the further development of a technique that they call Remote Explosive Scent Tracing (REST). REST is based on a technique originally developed by the South African company Mechem, who had named it the Mechem Explosives and Drug Detection System (MEDDS). The REST system is now used primarily as an area reduction method, most often along roads, where it has proven especially effective.

As hinted at above, REST involves bringing air samples from suspect areas to a remote detector that determines the presence or absence of explosive vapors. First, a team equipped with scent trapping devices must venture into the suspected area, following in the tire tracks of a mine proof vehicle. The scent trappers wear backpack-mounted suction machines—which bear an uncanny resemblance to the proton packs that the Ghostbusters used—that draws air through a long tube that has replaceable filter cartridges at its tip. As they walk along the safe lane, the trappers sweep their tube back and forth as air is continually sucked through the filters. At regular intervals (100–300 meters), they stop and replace the filters, carefully storing the used filters for later examination. After sweeping a predetermined distance, the team returns to a designated testing area.7

Notice that up until this point it is completely unknown whether or not the area sampled contains any mines. This is one big difference between REST and other detection techniques: deminers don’t receive instant answers. Instead, they take their carefully stored filters and line them up on special stands in a predetermined order. Trained dogs then inspect each filter, indicating if they identify any trace of explosives. The system has evolved using dogs as the detector, but Fido (or a similar sensor) may someday prove just as effective. In fact, tests are underway in Croatia at this moment to determine whether Fido can match the dogs’ detection feats. In any case, if a dog or sensor detects explosives on one of the filters, the deminers can then trace it back to a general, known location. When they don’t detect any explosive threat, that specific section of road or land can be declared safe, significantly reducing the area that manual deminers must painstakingly inspect.

According to Mr. Ian McLean, a research analyst with GICHD, the great advantage of the REST system is that it allows several dogs or sensors the opportunity to check each sample, reducing the chance that a contaminated area is missed. In the field, only two dogs sniff suspected areas, while three to five analyze each REST filter. Mr. McLean also commented on the potential use of mechanical vapor detectors, foreseeing a situation where “machines and dogs can serve to QA each other,” thus adding another level of safety-enhancing redundancy to the system. When asked about the future of REST, Mr. McLean concluded that “scent collection on filters, whether for inspection by dogs or machines or both, will almost certainly always offer advantages in terms of efficiency for area reduction, so scent collection is more likely to increase in use than to be phased out.” The REST system is one emerging technology that has already had a positive impact on mine action, and through refinement and additional testing, promises to further increase efficiency.

Next Generation Mines

Though deminers are hard at work dealing with the last generation of mines, researchers are also hard at work developing the next generation of mines. As it stands, most mines’ triggering ranges are effectively zero: the target must step directly on top of the mine (or activate its tripwire) to set it off. To make up for this “shortcoming,” soldiers must saturate an area with mines to ensure that area denial (see next section for more on area denial) objectives are met, tying up valuable personnel and littering areas with excessive numbers of mines. To address these deficiencies, researchers are investigating several methods for increasing the range of individual mines, allowing future minefields to maintain effectiveness with fewer mines than are now necessary.2 Also, new safeguards will be built into these high-tech mines to aid the deminers who will inevitably end up removing them and to protect civilians who might trod the ground in which they’re planted.

Through e-mail correspondence with Mr. Kent Kogler of the IIT Research Institute, I learned some of the details behind these concepts. Mr. Kogler outlined four anti-vehicle mine prototypes that meet the desired criteria:

  • The Small Unit Robot (SUBOT) carries its payload around on wheels, using sensors to track and engage enemy vehicles. It is under development by the Center for Intelligent Systems, a division of Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).
  • The Spider mine being developed by Tracer Round Ltd. acts a bit like Spider Man when a target rolls by, the mine shoots out a tether device that attaches to the vehicle. The mine then pulls itself in toward the target, ensuring a direct hit.
  • Under development by the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Weapon Systems Technology Information Analysis Center (WSTIAC), the Side Attack Mine (SAM) engages its target from a distance. When an unwitting vehicle passes nearby, the SAM tracks it rotationally from its position, firing its warhead into the target’s side.
  • Contrary to its deceiving name, the WSTIAC’s Bounder mine is not a classic bounding AP mine. Instead, Bounder uses a telescoping appendage to elevate itself about three meters, increasing its view of the surrounding area. Able to track rotationally like the SAM, Bounder also attacks its targets from the side.

All of these mines use sensors to detect nearby targets and then use some method to engage that target from a distance. This is certainly an advance in lethality. But do these mines offer any similar advances to ease the job of those who must someday neutralize them? Mr. Kogler answered in the affirmative. If the mines work as advertised, each minefield would require less of them. Fewer mines in place means fewer mines to remove. But that’s not the only advantage these next-generation mines will offer deminers. Mr. Kogler informed me that any fully developed mine eventually deployed will contain a “communications module,” allowing a man-in-the-loop-type capability. According to Mr. Kogler, “This ability will aid demining operations by [allowing a soldier to] turn the mines ‘off’ when the mission has been completed.” The mines will still be victim activated, but only so long as the mission lasts. Also, soldiers can program self-destruct times into the munitions, blowing them to bits after a certain amount of time. This would presumably be a backup to the “off” switch.

The mines outlined above offer advantages for both soldiers and civilians. Fewer soldiers will need to lay fewer mines that will destroy more tanks, while unused mines will self-destruct or be turned “off” so deminers can safely remove them. It’s as much of a win-win situation as can be found along the military/mine action interface. But will the humanitarian potential of these mines ever be realized? After all, impressive technology comes at a price: these next generation mines will cost at least $1,500 (U.S.) each.

This brings up an important consideration: assuming that militaries continue to use mines for area denial, will they use these highly effective, high-tech, high-priced mines or the slightly less effective, low-tech low-cost mines that they have been using for decades? And what about the non-state actors (NSAs), freedom fighters and/or terrorists who sow mines primarily to sow terror? They probably won’t have access to these supermines and their advanced capabilities. Do warlords in Africa care whether or not their mines can be turned “on” or “off”? Will the Indians and Pakistanis dig up all the mines they have laid over the past few years and replace them with more deminer-friendly varieties? I’m not an international expert by any means, but I think not. Unfortunately, I predict that when tensions rise, most countries and NSAs will continue to plant good old-fashioned landmines that are cheap and effective as ever.

Of course, no militaries will get to use—and no deminer will get to clean up—the next generation of mines if they aren’t fully developed. Mr. Kogler explained that after September 11th, funding to these projects was cut and has been reallocated. He added, “It is not clear if and when this program will continue.” While I agree that using zero mines would be better (for practitioners of mine action) than high-tech mines, advanced mines are still better than the status quo. If mines are going to be laid, they might as well have an “off” switch.

Metal Storm

When used by legitimate armies (not always the case), landmines function primarily as an area denial weapon. A methodically laid out minefield fulfills this role very well, defending against both infantry and armor cheaply and effectively. AP mines incapacitate the soldiers; AT mines impale the tanks. Once emplaced, a minefield can protect an area indefinitely, ensuring that no one gets in. Permanency and reliability are two of landmines’ advantages over other area denial weapon systems. Once a minefield is installed, area denial is assured. But when the war has ended and the soldiers have dispersed, the landmines remain to exact an unwarranted toll on civilians. AP and AT mines linger on, assuming a new role: denying land to the citizens who need it to restart their interrupted lives.

What if a military could lay down a minefield that held no mines? What if a military could achieve its area denial objectives with a method that left when the soldiers left? What if soldiers could identify potential targets of their area denial weapons before they were blown up? A new technology known as Metal Storm, under development in Australia by Metal Storm LTD., promises to address the permanency problem of landmines while maintaining their area denial “advantages.”

Let us first outline the technology itself before we delve into its potential impact on the mine action world. Metal Storm technology allows nearly simultaneous firing of multiple projectiles from the same barrel, resulting in unprecedented rates of fire. By firing from 36 barrels at the same time, a prototype gun demonstrated by the company nearly vaporized 15 wooden doors in just two-tenths of a second, representing a firing rate of over one million rounds per minute.6 Metal Storm uses an entirely electrical firing system, doing away with 20th century relics such as mechanical firing pins and triggers. The only parts of a Metal Storm gun that move are the bullets. And they move fast. Because each bullet is fired so soon after the previous, by some strange law of aerodynamics those in the rear “push” the bullets in front, increasing their velocity. Reloading is accomplished by simply inserting another factory-packed tube of bullets into the barrel. Besides bullets, Metal Storm technology has been adapted to much larger munitions, including 40- and 60-mm rounds and a variety of grenades, greatly upgrading the destructive capability of this weapon system.5

Metal Storm LTD. has devised several possible uses for their technology, and one of those happens to be as a landmine replacement system that is compatible with the Mine Ban Treaty. Both the Australian and U.S. militaries have shown great interest in this potential application, providing a steady flow of funding to bring the company’s concepts to fruition. What follows is a basic area denial scenario as currently imagined by Metal Storm LTD. For more technical information, view the company’s website at http://www.metalstorm.com.

First, friendly soldiers bury a few sensors around the area they are guarding. They then place several Area Denial Weapon System (ADWS) pods—each containing up to 98 barrels that would in turn contain up to six 40mm grenades—in strategic locations so that each pod’s line of fire intersects with another’s.3 Some barrels could be reserved for flash-bang grenades and other non-lethal ordnance, giving several options for dealing with intruders. Every sensor is connected to every ADWS pod, and all are connected to one central communication hub, represented by a laptop computer in the company’s website demo.3 This laptop is in turn monitored by a soldier who represents the ever-so-necessary man-in-the-loop.

So, we have sensors linked to pods linked to a laptop watched by a soldier. How does this system deny area? And how is it better than landmines? Let’s imagine that enemy forces—say, a few tanks and some armored personnel carriers—are encroaching on the turf that our lone soldier is guarding. From his protected position, he notices his laptop flashing an alert. The buried sensors have triangulated a target’s position while it is still out of visual range. In a traditional minefield setting, whatever is out there would already have been blown up, regardless of whether it is a civilian’s truck or enemy tanks.

But our soldier has the opportunity to check out the target before he buries it under a barrage of explosive munitions. According to Metal Storm LTD., the ADWS pods will accommodate a video camera in one of the barrels. The soldier can choose to launch this camera to positively identify the target from a bird’s-eye view. In this case, the soldier sees that enemy forces have indeed infiltrated his perimeter. Using his laptop, our man-in-the-loop orders up a punishing response to this incursion while the sensors keep tracking the target’s position. He can choose how many munitions to fire off and also which types to use. As soon as he confirms his decision on the screen, every barrel in every pod erupts simultaneously. A split second later, thousands of 40-mm anti-armor grenades rain down on the enemy tanks and personnel carriers, engulfing them in a flood of explosive fire.

After the soldier’s army decides that particular area no longer needs defending, combatants can round up the pods and sensors and transport them to wherever they might be needed. No explosive devices are left behind—only the ruined remnants of invading forces.

The immediate, massive firepower made possible by Metal Storm technology could eventually become a suitable alternative to traditional landmines. The scenario outlined above answers the major complaints that mine action practitioners level against landmines: the system is not victim activated and does not leave behind buried explosive devices. A real live person must confirm each strike before it happens and soldiers carry out the ADWS pods when they depart. Area denial objectives are also met, as Metal Storm promises to deal with any verified intruder at least as thoroughly as a conventional minefield.

However, unleashing such a tremendous number of munitions within a limited area brings up a few other problems. First, unless the grenades can reduce the target to its component atoms (which they can’t), a lot of shrapnel is going to be spread around the target area. And while shrapnel and metallic scraps aren’t as dangerous as landmines, they certainly aren’t good for crop growing or redevelopment either.

Then there is the familiar problem of UXO. The Metal Storm website claims that “the fuse for the Metal Storm ADWS projectiles is being designed with a high probability of function (99.9 percent) with self-destruct function after a period of time, hence extremely low UXO levels.”3 I spoke with Mr. Chuck Vehlow of Metal Storm to determine how the company plans to fulfill this audacious claim, since no munition yet developed has come close to 99.9 percent effectiveness. Mr. Vehlow explained that each round used in the ADWS will include a proprietary internal fusing system—which is still under development—to assure that munitions explode on contact with the target or ground. Mr. Vehlow assured me that once deminers locate the 0.1 percent of munitions that do not function correctly, an external component on each round will allow deminers to defuse them quickly and easily.

If Metal Storm does succeed in creating a UXO-proof fuse, there is still the problem of detecting other UXO in a shrapnel-laden field that is also drenched in explosive vapors. After all, these activities are all presumably taking place in a war zone where conventional munitions were or will be fired or dropped, and those munitions unquestionably leave UXO problems behind. Typical mine detection methods would be severely compromised under such conditions, as the shrapnel would eliminate metal detectors and the ubiquitous vapors would negate the use of dogs and even Fido. Though Metal Storm might not create UXO problems, it might prevent deminers from cleaning others up. I asked Mr. Vehlow about this potential complication, and he reminded me that any time a round detonates in an area there will be some sort of shrapnel effect. He stated that Metal Storm’s advantage lies with the man-in-the-loop’s ability to tailor the system’s response to the identified threat, meaning that no more munitions than necessary ought to be fired at any one time. I see his point and agree with his reasoning—Metal Storm does offer significant advantages over a conventional minefield for soldiers and deminers alike—but the ability to saturate an area with thousands of grenades in a fraction of a second still does not seem like a huge step forward for society. Nevertheless, the mine action community can look forward to deployment of Metal Storm ADWS pods in as little as 18 months, potentially signaling the beginning of the end for conventional minefields. And that’s something to cheer about, isn’t it?

Conclusion

As in every other field these days, mine action is bursting with new, promising technologies. The projects outlined above all promise to significantly alter the mine action landscape—if they are given proper funding. As Mr. Sikes put it, “From a commercial standpoint, just going out and making demining equipment is not particularly profitable.” And there’s the crux of the mine action technology problem: so much promise, so little money.

References

(1) Gravagne, Ian A. and Woodfin, Ronald L. “Mine Sniffing Robotic Snakes and Eels: Fantasy or Reality?” Fifth International Symposium: Technology and the Mine Problem. Monterey, California, April 2002.
(2) Kogler, Kent; Kokodis, Victor; Kisatsky, Paul; Wagner, Rick. “Area Denial for Next Generation Scatterable Mines.” Weapon Systems Technology Information Analysis Center. Volume 1, Number 3, July 2000.
(3) Metal Storm ADWS Description: Retrieved from <http://www.metalstorm.com/11_applications/military.html#ADWS> on May 10, 2002.
(4) Fido Sensor Description: Retrieved from <www.nomadics.com/Landmine_Detector/Fido/> on June 18, 2002.
(5) Puri, Vinod; Forbes, Stephen; Filippidis, Despina. “Metal Storm: Key Technology for Future Land Warfare.” Proceedings of the Land Weapons Systems Conference, hosted by the DSTO in November 1999.
(6) Taggart, Stewart. “New Gun Fires ‘Laser of Lead.’” Wired News. September 28, 2001. Retrieved from <www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,46570,00.html> on May 10, 2002.
(7) Unpublished GICHD report, prepared by NOKSH.

Contact Information

JJ Scott
MAIC
scottjj@jmu.edu

Dr. Ian Gravagne
Baylor University
igravag@ces.clemson.edu

Mr. Kent Kogler
IIT Research Institute
kkogler@iitri.org

Mr. Ian McLean
GICHD
I.mclean@gichd.ch

Mr. Chuck Vehlow
Metal Storm LTD.
cvehlow@metalstorm.com

Mr. John Sikes
Nomadics, Inc.
jsikes@nomadics.com

 
 
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