Issue 7.3, December 2003
Information within this issue may be outdated. Click here to view the most recent issue
U.S. Humanitarian Demining R&D Program: Emerging Technologies

The Humanitarian Demining (HD) Research and Development (R&D) Program is continually innovating and applying new technology to the demining of landmine fields. Through these changes, the goal of worldwide mine clearance is within reach.

by Sean Burke, Tom Henderson and Roger Cresci, NVESD

Introduction

Afghanistan, Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, Thailand, Cambodia, Honduras—these are only a few of the many nations suffering from a severe landmine problem, and seven of over 20 nations that have received assistance through a robust U.S. R&D program designed to help solve this crisis.

The U.S. HD R&D Program focuses on the development, testing, demonstration and validation of technology for immediate use in HD operations and environments around the globe. The U.S. Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command’s Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) executes this program for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict (OASD SO/LIC).

The R&D Program develops new technology that will improve the overall safety and efficiency of existing HD operations at a minimal cost. This is accomplished through the adaptation of commercial off-the-shelf equipment, the integration of mature technologies and the leveraging of current R&D technology developments within the NVESD Countermine and Science and Technology mission areas. The primary goal of the program is to enhance existing technology that can be used for mine detection, wide area surveys, mechanical mine clearance and vegetation clearance, mine neutralization, individual deminer protection and individual deminer tools. This article will focus on the most recent R&D mechanical mine clearance and vegetation clearance technology developments.

The Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop

The primary challenge facing the R&D Program each year is the process of gaining a thorough understanding of the most serious problems facing deminers around the world. This is necessary so that the program can focus on technology developments that will achieve the greatest results in the shortest possible time.

We address this challenge in two ways. The first is to bring representatives from governmental mine action centers (MACs) and demining-related non-governmental organizations (NGOs) together in an informal workshop environment with the purpose of extracting their most critical technology needs.

The R&D Program Manager hosts the Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop each year in the Washington, D.C., area to update the technology requirements of the demining community. This workshop is one of the most important events of the program because it documents the required capabilities that truly represent current demining needs.

The second way to address the challenge is to perform in-country site assessments. During these assessments, the R&D Program engineers and logisticians travel to minefields in host nations to gain firsthand knowledge of deminers and the physical and environmental challenges they face while performing demining operations. Site assessments are discussed in greater detail later in this article.

The R&D Program decides where to focus its development efforts at the conclusion of the Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop. The Program Manager then structures a program execution plan for the upcoming fiscal year and submits it to OASD SO/LIC for approval. Once the plan is approved, the design and development of prototype technologies immediately begin. This is accomplished using the following three methods:

  1. Awarding external contracts to industry.
  2. Conducting in-house developments utilizing highly experienced and skilled personnel from the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility.
  3. Leveraging from existing NVESD Countermine developmental efforts.

International market surveys are also conducted to help identify commercially available items that could be used or adapted for HD applications.

All prototype technologies undergo extensive developmental testing to ensure all design requirements are met. If test results identify engineering modifications that will improve the system’s performance, changes are made and the system is retested. Successful developmental testing provides confidence that a system is ready for use, but the true test is the evaluation done in actual field environments in the host nations, which are referred to as Operational Field Evaluations.

Operational Field Evaluations

The Operational Field Evaluation is one of the most important aspects of the HD R&D Program because the new equipment is tested in real minefields. Operational Field Evaluations are extremely beneficial to the HD effort in many ways. These evaluations allow the host country to use and evaluate equipment for a predetermined period of time to discover if it is useful, cost-effective and efficient. There is no better method for testing the effectiveness and suitability of prototype technologies. It also provides the R&D Program with important “lessons learned” information that may result in system improvements for future evaluations.

The Operational Field Evaluation process begins with a host nation request to OASD SO/LIC. If approved, OASD SO/LIC directs the R&D Program personnel to conduct an in-country site assessment. The in-country site assessment team, which includes engineers and logisticians from the HD R&D Program, assists the requesting nation in determining the most appropriate prototype equipment for each specific area of operation. Many factors are considered, including terrain, weather and a variety of landmines. The assessment process ends with a recommendation for the most suitable technology that could fulfill the defined mission and a decision by OASD SO/LIC to support an Operational Field Evaluation. Evaluations typically last from six months to one year.

An important aspect of the R&D Program is the opportunity for NGOs and governmental MACs from the supported demining nations to participate in the development of a specific technology from its initial design through its Operational Field Evaluation. The host nation’s NGO/MAC has the opportunity to participate as a user in the development cycle when a new development is determined to be the best technological solution to meet their specific need. The NGO/MAC is kept up to date on the system’s development progress and welcome to participate in meetings and observe developmental testing. In return, the host nation agrees to conduct an Operational Field Evaluation once the system development is complete.

HD Program: Mechanical Technologies at Work

Mechanical mine and vegetation clearance was identified as a top-priority requirement by the international demining community during the recent Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop. This is primarily due to the variety of different environmental conditions and types of terrain that challenge the international demining community. Therefore, environmental considerations and terrain types are taken into consideration when developing new technologies. The R&D Program has focused its efforts on developing more cost-effective and efficient mine clearance and vegetation removal technologies that can be used in several different environments. In fact, NVESD’s Prototype Fabrication Facility has proven to be one of the most capable organizations for mechanical mine clearance and vegetation clearance design and development. If industry cannot provide an equipment solution, NVESD’s Prototype Fabrication Facility can build one. Many of the most successful technology solutions in the field today have been designed and built under the R&D Program’s guidance at the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility.

One of the key requirements in achieving this goal is to provide standoff protection for demining equipment operators. This is accomplished by utilizing tele-operated and semi-autonomous platforms whenever possible. As of yet, there is not one single technology that can overcome all of the challenges faced by the different demining communities. However, technologies developed by the R&D Program confront specific environmental challenges and are making a positive impact in the process to rid the world of mines.

Mine Clearing Cultivator

The MCC operating in Angola.

The Mine Clearing Cultivator (MCC), completely designed and built by the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility, is a remote-controlled mechanical system that unearths and removes AT mines from unimproved roads and large open areas without creating the berm that other commercial dozers produce. The system consists of a large tine array and a hydraulically powered auger integrated onto a commercial 200-hp-class bulldozer. Operationally, the tine array cultivates the soil and lifts AT mines and other large objects to the surface. Then, the hydraulically powered auger distributes the mines to each side of the tractor for subsequent neutralization. One major advantage of the system is the tine array’s modular breakaway design. This allows for the system to be fully repairable in the event of an inadvertent mine detonation. The MCC is currently operating in minefields in Angola.

Mine Clearing Sifter

The MCS operating in Angola.

Since the MCC is designed for AT mine clearance only, a solution for AP mine clearance is also required in some areas. The Mine Clearing Sifter (MCS) is designed to do just that. The Mine Clearing Sifter is a remote-controlled mechanical device that sifts through the previously cultivated soil and removes any remaining AP mines and other large objects. It mounts onto the same 200-hp-class bulldozer as the MCC. The MCS consists of a shear blade that lifts everything in its path, down to 35 cm deep, onto a sloped conveyor belt assembly. Any objects less than four cm in size fall through the conveyor belt grill back onto the ground. The remaining objects are transferred onto a perpendicular side-casting conveyor belt, which then deposits the mines and other material to the side of the machine for subsequent neutralization. The MCS is able to process up to 1,320 sq m of soil per hour and is ideally suited to follow the MCC. It is also currently operating in the same minefields in Angola and is being used in conjunction with the MCC.

Floating Mine Blade

The Floating Mine Blade (FMB) is another remote-controlled mechanical mine clearance system that was completely designed by the engineers on the HD R&D Program and fabricated at the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility. This system is primarily used for large area clearance and for follow-up quality assurance. The digging teeth on the front of the assembly penetrate the soil down to 20 cm and lift AT and bounding fragmentation mines to the surface. The unique free-floating linkage design keeps the teeth at a predefined, constant raking depth, eliminating the need for any depth control inputs from the operator. As the system moves forward, mines and large objects are lifted by the digging teeth and fed into a set of sifting vanes. The sifting vanes then deposit the mines to the right side of the dozer for subsequent neutralization. The FMB does not create a berm as other commercial dozers do. The free-floating linkage, remote control and modular design are all technological improvements over current military plows and commercial blades. These improvements ensure operator safety and have decreased the amount of training required to operate the system. The FMB was deployed to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2001, where it assisted the U.S. Marines in quality assurance/mine clearing operations of the last remaining U.S.-controlled minefield.

Rotary Mine Comb

The Rotary Mine Comb is a mechanical device used to clear AT mines from large open areas with minimal vegetation. The device operates very similar to a kitchen “mixer.” As the host platform moves slowly forward, the eight counter-rotating tines gently lift mines to the surface and simultaneously nudge them to the outer edges of the device. The Rotary Mine Comb has several advantages over other mine clearing systems. Its three-meter wide clearance area allows the device to be mounted on a variety of remote-controlled and operator-driven platforms. It does not create a berm or spoil typically left by commercial plows. Additionally, unlike other machines, the Rotary Mine Comb operates equally well in hard-packed soils, clay and rocky terrain. The Rotary Mine Comb is one of the most promising new prototypes developed under the HD R&D Program. It is currently being integrated onto a HALO Trust-operated platform. A remote-controlled platform is also under development to eliminate the operator risk associated with operating the manual platforms.

Rhino Earth Tiller

The Rhino Earth Tiller is a remote-controlled mechanical system used for large-area AP mine clearance and area reduction. The main components of the Rhino are its two horizontally mounted, counter-rotating tiller drums that are fitted with tungsten carbide chisels. These drums excavate and grind all material down to a depth of 30 cm. AP mines in the soil are either detonated or shredded into pieces too small to be functional. No damage occurs if AP mines are detonated and only minimal damage occurs in the event of an inadvertent AT mine detonation. The Rhino is able to clear 1,000 sq m of land per hour while cultivating the soil at the same time. The Rhino’s ability to neutralize and destroy mines in various types of terrain and light vegetation makes it very effective for area reduction in suspected minefields. The Rhino is scheduled to deploy to Azerbaijan for an Operational Field Evaluation in fiscal year 2004 (FY04).

Survivable Demining Tractor and Tools

One of the greatest success stories of the HD R&D Program is the Survivable Demining Tractor and Tools (SDTT). The SDTT is a modified commercial tractor fitted with armor plating and optional steel wheels used to support various demining operations in heavily vegetated areas. Although the tractor can be survivable against AT mines, it is specifically designed to operate in areas containing AP mines since it can survive the direct effects from these mines without damage to the system or injury to its operator.  

The SDTT offers deminers the flexibility to choose from a variety of specialized implements that best suit their environmental conditions, accomplishing missions ranging from area preparation to quality assurance. These implements include heavy vegetation cutters, a slasher mounted on the rear of the tractor, cultivators, grabs, a front loader combined with a rake, rollers, magnets, and a tree extractor that is capable of pulling trees eight inches in diameter from the soil. This flexibility and variety of tools has improved the time for clearance in Cambodia and Thailand by over 70 percent. Through June of 2003, the SDTT cleared more than 1,770,112 sq m of land in Thailand and it continues to be an integral part of the Thailand Mine Action Center’s (TMAC’s) integrated mine action program.

Improved Backhoe

The Improved Backhoe is another example of a technology that was designed by the engineers on the HD R&D Program and fabricated at the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility. However, this system incorporates a variety of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) attachments used for vegetation reduction and soil sifting in mine-suspected areas. The vehicle itself is a commercial JCB tractor that has been modified by armoring the cab and chassis and replacing the pneumatic tires with blast-proof Southeast Tire Company (SETCO) tires. Multiple attachments have been incorporated onto the tractor, the primary one being a COTS Rotar sifting bucket. The Rotar sifting bucket safely collects, sifts, and separates mines and other debris from mine-suspected soil. After the bucket opens and gathers the contaminated soil, it is locked in the closed position and rotates so that loose soil and anything smaller than four cm falls through the openings in the bucket’s grid. The spoil that does not fall through the grid can then be set aside in a controlled area for safe visual inspection. Additional versatility is achieved by integrating a six-in-one loader bucket, backhoe bucket, grappling thumb, forklift and various standard attachments that allow the system to operate in the more conventional construction role. Also, the four-wheel drive, four-wheel steering platform maximizes maneuverability and allows operation on varying terrain with minimal environmental impact.

PM-CCS Berm Sifter

The PM-CCS Berm Sifter in operation at test site.

The U.S. Army’s Program Manager for Close Combat Systems (PM-CCS) is providing two modified U.S. Army front loader platforms to the U.S. Army in southwest Asia in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. An urgent need identified by the Department of Army and the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command initiated a three-team (PM-CCS, HD R&D Program, and the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility) effort to rapidly identify and modify two U.S. Army front loaders. The cab and chassis were armored, the pneumatic tires were replaced with solid rubber SETCO tires, and a COTS Rotar sifting bucket was integrated to sift soil and separate mines in suspected areas in Afghanistan. All of the work and integration was completed at the NVESD Prototype Fabrication Facility, once again proving the HD R&D Program’s claim of “if it doesn’t exist, we can build it.” The Army deployed the systems to Afghanistan in the fall of 2003. The PM-CCS Berm Sifter is an excellent example of how leveraging, outstanding teamwork and the quick reaction capability of the HD R&D Program can contribute to successful technology development.

Uni-Disk

The Uni-Disk is an armored commercial CAT excavator that has been modified to clear heavily vegetated, wooded, and hard-to-reach areas such as roadsides, embankments, and areas around bridges. The Uni-Disk consists of an armored track excavator, a vegetation clearing Shinn cutter attachment, a COTS Rotar sifting bucket and a standard bucket for use in everyday construction activities. These interchangeable tools and a 25-ft reach allow the Uni-Disk to operate extremely well in various environments while providing a safe standoff distance for the operator. The Uni-Disk was deployed for an Operational Field Evaluation to Mozambique in 2003, where in the first five months, it has worked 136 hours and cleared more than 63,249 sq m of vegetation/land. It has the capability to clear more than one hectare of vegetation in eight hours.

Sifting Excavator

The Sifting Excavator is also an armored commercial excavator that has been specifically redesigned and modified to clear heavily vegetated areas and excavate deeply buried mines in Honduras. This redesign was a direct response to a request made by the Honduran government at the Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop in Fiscal Year 2002 (FY02). The Honduras army has a unique problem that requires the excavation of deeply buried mines and UXO. In response to this requirement, the HD R&D Program engineers designed and implemented an innovative, multi-step approach with the goal of clearing mines buried up to 50 cm deep. First, the Sifting Excavator digs an extended trench with the standard bucket parallel to the minefield. It then makes a second pass where the sifting “forklike” bucket is inserted into the bottom of the minefield trench wall and operated in such a way that it collapses a small section of the wall back into the existing trench. Finally, a third pass is made with the COTS Rotar sifting bucket attachment. The Rotar sifting bucket is used to scoop up and sift the collapsed soil to remove mines and large debris at a separate location. Although it is a time-consuming process, testing has shown this system to be very promising. Deployment to Honduras is scheduled for November 2003.

Tempest

The Tempest operating in Cambodia.

The Tempest is another great example of an HD R&D Program success story. The Tempest was specifically designed to be an affordable remote-controlled mechanical system for clearing medium vegetation, neutralizing tripwires and removing metallic debris on the surface of AP minefields. It utilizes interchangeable vegetation-clearing components (flail, mulching mower), and it integrates magnets to prepare the land for follow-up detection technologies. Its V-shaped chassis and hardened sacrificial wheels enable it to survive AP landmine threats. The latest version of the Tempest, the MK5, is capable of cutting 2000 sq m of two-m-tall vegetation per hour. It has been deployed in Cambodia, Thailand and most recently Mozambique to undergo Operational Field Evaluations. In the first five months of operation in 2003, one Tempest cleared 54,000 sq m of land in three separate minefields in Mozambique for the United Nations Accelerated Demining Program (UNADP), while another continues to be an integral part of TMAC’s mine action program.

MAXX

The MAXX system is a small, remote-controlled mechanical system designed to clear medium vegetation in various environments. It incorporates several COTS tools (mulcher, cutting blade, sifting fork and commercial buckets) mounted on a small commercial platform. It is ideal for clearing vegetation in hard-to-reach areas and around obstacles. The MAXX design places interchangeable heads at the end of a 360-degree rotating articulating arm providing a “reach in” capability to clear vegetation ahead of the machine. This mode of operation allows the system to operate from cleared areas, reducing the risk of damage if a mine is detonated. MAXX was recently deployed and is operating in Rwanda on an Operational Field Evaluation. Early results are very promising.

Conclusion

The U.S. HD R&D Program is making steady progress towards achieving its goal of making demining safer, faster and more efficient than current methods. Mechanical clearance equipment currently undergoing Operational Field Evaluations has helped clear over 500,000 sq m of land in just the first six months of 2003. The HD R&D Program is conducting new site assessments and is planning for new Operational Field Evaluations in FY04. The results of the 2003 Annual Humanitarian Demining Requirements Workshop have been analyzed and the program execution plan has been developed for FY04. The project engineers, logisticians and technicians working on the program have an extensive range of expertise and experience, and continue to increase their understanding and knowledge of the HD environment. The HD R&D Program continues to be proactive and anxious to contribute as much as it can to help solve the global landmine crisis.

*All photos courtesy of the author.

Contact Information

Sean Burke
U.S. Army NVESD
10221 Burbeck Rd
Suite 430 (RDEC)
Fort Belvoir, VA 22060-5806
USA
Tel: 703-704-1047
Fax: 703-704-3001
E-mail: sean.burke@nvl.army.mil