Issue 7.3, December 2003
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The R&D Requirements Workshop

It doesn’t take more than a day with deminers in a minefield to realize the challenges they face. You quickly discover they are dedicated to what they do, they are passionate about it, and they are extremely vocal about what they think they need to do a better job. A group of dedicated engineers and developers have been carefully listening to what they have to say.

by Joe Lokey, NVESD

For the past seven years, the U.S. Department of Defense Humanitarian Demining (HD) Research & Development (R&D) Program at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, has been reaching out to global experts in demining to find out what they need in the way of better tools, techniques and technologies. The positive results can be found in Thailand, Cambodia, Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. These improvements and innovations in tools, technologies and machines all start with an annual requirements workshop in which deminers from the field are invited to bring their ideas and problems to a group of specialists to solve these very problems.

The concept is simple: gather useful and effective suggestions and ideas from the experts in the field on their most critical needs. Then use the resources made available by the U.S. government to adapt solutions to those ideas to off-the-shelf technologies or local solutions to improve mine detection, mine clearance or personal protection. The results are then tested and evaluated in a live minefield where more data is collected and mines are cleared.

This is the only forum in the world where deminers are regularly brought in to provide developers and researchers the ideas and challenges to improving mine action. They come from a variety of climates, terrains and environments around the globe, thus adding a wide range of perspectives on the same issues. The office responsible for running this annual requirements workshop is the NVESD at Ft. Belvoir in Virginia.

The NVESD Process

What the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) does is really simple. They find out what needs to get done. They determine what will make the biggest difference. They prioritize their funding with the work that has to be done. Then they develop and field prototype equipment and technologies. Not all output is from pure research. As an example, they will take an existing piece of equipment and modify it, test it and conduct field trials in a variety of “live” conditions. The cost to the host nation that requests these operational tests is minimal since all they fund are essentially the daily operations costs and the host country does not have to absorb the huge expense of development and engineering.

During the test and evaluation, performance data is collected on the technology. This information is used to change the configuration, make modifications or even change the operating procedures to get the optimal benefit to the deminer from the innovations being fielded. It is this continuous path of process improvements that results in a better, less expensive, more efficient, safer path to a mine-free world.

Of course, there is always some paperwork involved, but a visit to the U.S. Embassy, a letter of request and a phone call to the right office is about all it takes to get the process of testing these technologies in a country underway. Once approved, a team of specialists is dispatched to assess the demining situation and lay the foundation for future action. The tests and in-country evaluations are normally set up for six months to a year. The host country then decides whether or not that particular technology or equipment should be acquired on a permanent basis.

At the end of the evaluation, everyone benefits. The NVESD gets feedback on performance and suggestions to make the product or technology better. The host nation gets a minefield cleared or mines detected with technology or equipment on loan to them during the tests. The operators on the ground get hands-on experience and training with new and updated technologies. The company or manufacturer of the technology gets invaluable marketing and performance data for future sales of more appropriate and affordable tools to address the landmine problem.

Inside the Workshop

The NGO attendees share ideas at the workshop.

The workshop has evolved over the years and has grown in participation. The number of countries supported by the United States is well over 40 and representatives from most of these countries have, at one time, attended one or more of these workshops. The past few years have averaged attendance from 16–18 various country demining programs. Others have also attended as guests from countries such as the People’s Republic of China.

The mix of attendees is also critical to the success of the workshop. In addition to all the major non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in demining, there are many military demining units and civilian demining agency heads that attend and brief their programs and developmental priorities. Commercial demining organizations are not invited. Workshop proceedings are usually made available to the attendees and any other government that requests them.

This hands-on field visit is the ultimate opportunity to see, touch, hear and feel the possible solution to any given demining challenge. No longer just a picture on a briefing slide, the attendees can see the equipment up close and, in some cases, operate it themselves to get a full and complete understanding of the improvements being made and the results that may come with these improvements.

The workshop normally covers several days. Most of the time is spent in a workshop setting with presentations and frequent discussions. Each country program is briefed and is encouraged to contain a list of the technologies in use and their greatest challenges that may need a technology solution. Far from being a purely academic exercise, an entire day of the workshop is set aside for a field visit to view and handle the various equipment, technologies and tools under development or available for field trials by the NVESD at their field development and testing facility. Attendees view 15–20 various machines or technologies in operation, as well as detonations of various pyrotechnic neutralization tools under development.

A wide variety of discussions is continually taking place during the workshop, and many attendees have the opportunity to learn from others in a similar situation and discover common approaches to their problems. This leads to a variety of suggestions and ideas that may, in some form, provide the basis for new and improved mine action processes in the future. A detailed overview of the technologies presented at the workshop is in the accompanying article “U.S. HD R&D Program: Mechanical Technologies at Work.” Other topics discussed include:

Getting Good Ideas

The workshop is the biggest and best opportunity for country demining programs to focus their needs on technology as a solution to their biggest challenges. The staff of NVESD also harvests new and innovative ideas by a variety of other venues and forums.

Site Assessments

During these visits to minefields around the world, NVESD engineers and scientists get a firsthand look at the conditions and environment within which deminers operate. This experience enhances the technology solution and ensures a full understanding of the operational field conditions that will be challenging their technology solutions.

Flat panel solar conductors may be the answer to expensive batteries.

Conferences and Workshops

Nearly all of the staff at the NVESD HD R&D team travels to where the solutions may be found. Whether that is a technical workshop, field demonstration, commercial demonstration or scientific presentation, they are busily building the foundation for the next good idea or that next breakthrough innovation. As the attendees at the workshop found out, the staff at NVSED is eager to listen and asks all the right questions. The response to their demining challenges seems to demonstrate that clearly.

Website

The attendees at the workshop were also reminded that all the equipment and technologies they saw were also described in great detail on the NVESD website at http://www.humanitarian-demining.org/, along with many other items of interest. The website has recently been updated and now covers the following:

In addition to the above sections, the site also has one of the most comprehensive, and frequently updated, Links pages to key global demining-related sites in the mine action community. All visitors are encouraged to leave feedback on how the site addresses their issues. Finally, the current video of R&D efforts underway and available may also be ordered online through this site.

Direct Mail

After viewing all the equipment available and in development, workshop attendees are encouraged to take the concepts and ideas back to their home operations and consider how the NVESD may assist their specific needs in the field. Anyone with an idea or concept is encouraged to submit a “white paper” or detailed proposal to the staff at the NVESD for review and consideration. The address for such submissions, or any other questions, is:

U.S. Humanitarian Demining R&D Program
RDECOM CERDEC NVESD (AMSRD-CER-NV-CM-HD)
10221 Burbeck Road, Suite 430
Fort Belvoir, VA 22060-5806 USA

No Silver Bullets

Anyone engaged in creating workable, pragmatic and cost-effective solutions to mine detection and clearance knows there is no “silver bullet,” or one solution that solves every problem. There are, however, a considerable number of areas in our current methodologies where the application of science can make demining safer, faster and less expensive. These solutions don’t come from a laboratory but have their foundations in the daily routines of deminers looking for a better way to do their job. Getting these ideas and challenges to the people at NVESD, who have the skills and experience to address them, is the first step toward achieving advances that can more quickly lead to a mine-safe world.

The value of these workshops is clear. At the close of this year’s event, Hendrik Ehlers, CEO of MgM, closed the session by saying, “I am fairly certain I speak for most here in expressing gratitude for this very special event. It is different from anything else in the world and unique in many aspects. What you are doing here has a direct beneficial outcome into what we are doing in the field.”

*All photos courtesy of the author.

Contact Information

Joe Lokey
RDECOM CERDEC NVESD
10221 Burbeck Rd, Ste 430
Ft Belvoir, VA 22060
USA
Tel: (540) 560-0967
E-mail: jlokey@fibertek.com