most recent issue
Roadmap for Mine Action Robotic Technology Development

This paper presents some of the AMI-02 project preliminary work. The project is being developed by Integrators for Robotic Systems (IntRoSys) with funding from the Portuguese National Defence Ministry. The strong bond between Portugal and some African countries (i.e., former Portuguese colonies) is the main drive for the application of this project.

African countries are usually underdeveloped, requiring a sustainable approach to the mine action (MA) problem; in fact, the MA community shifted from a number-based approach to an impact-based approach,1 targeting the locals’ priorities.2 This means that the success of a demining campaign is not measured by the quantity of demined land but whether its output is used by the community,3 which has other problems besides landmines, such as starvation. In this sense, research and development (R&D) and technology applied to this specific domain should address this concern. Thus, the motto of this paper is to provide analysis, design and template tools to attain sustainable development.

Problem Definition

Unfortunately, as it will be shown below, demining is spread in both time and space, resulting in a high number of opportunities for the application of technology in demining operations. However, an incorrect assessment of the available opportunities in a given scenario for the application of a certain technology may end up in non-acceptance of the referred technology. Taking this into account, this section contributes a catergoristation of opportunities in a three-dimensional framework, composed of a temporal, a geographical and an economic component.

Temporal Component. The temporal component can be described in terms of the different phases of an MA process, which are as follows:

  1. Conflict and immediate post-conflict (humanitarian emergency)
  2. Post-conflict (reconstruction)
  3. Development (development assistance)

The different characteristics of each phase require different approaches; for instance, during the first phase, the international community is usually impelled to contribute strongly, empowering high-tech applications. In long-term phases, low-cost, simple and locally available resources for demining are required. However, for specific commercial applications (e.g., clearance of primary roads), there should be enough incentives to implement high-cost nouvelle—modern—solutions, as the one presented in the International Conference on Requirements and Technologies for the Detection, Removal and Neutralization of Landmines and UXO (pp. 32–40),4 which defines a model of agricultural exploitation in which the machinery is mine-resistant and therefore exploration of the land can be carried out even in the presence of the mine risk.

Geographical Component. The geographical component can be categorized as follows:

According to the Guide to the Procurement of Mine Action Equipment,6 the nature of the environment is also an important factor in the geographical component and a set of improvements that would augment demining productivity in 12 operating scenarios has been identified.

Economic Component. The economic component could have the following motivation: economic interests in third world affected countries (e.g., clearing access to oil wells). In this case, economic interests may be enough to acquire high-tech equipment for fast demining. Market studies7, 8 have been produced, and the main conclusions are that humanitarian demining is not an efficient market. It is small and shrinking;8 henceforward, the product's development usually requires direct or full funding.7

Demining Technology Development Roadmap

Previous work has identified opportunities9–11 and guidelines for the development12 and procurement6 of technology applicable to the MA domain. IMAS 3.106 and "Demining Trends and R&D Challenges"13 refer to close-in detection and area reduction as priority domains with significant benefits for demonstrating progress on R&D. It is important to augment mine-detection rates and mine detection accuracy and to reduce false alarms. The improvement of prodders, protection material, and comfort on the operations is also important, and is more intensively mentioned in Deminer’s Needs.10

The following paragraphs introduce a set of recommendations to the development of technology (with special focus on robotics) for the MA domain. Due to the importance that both close-in detection and area reduction have, special attention is focused on them. Note that this roadmap is not claimed to be the optimum solution; it is a solution that increases the confidence in terms of technology acceptance in the minefield.

Cost and Complexity. Usually high-tech means high cost and high complexity, which are drawbacks when the technology is to be applied in a domain where people have little formal education, the danger of damaging equipment is high, and the sites are remote and hazardous, hindering easy maintenance and repair. Local equipment has the advantage of being low-cost, readily available and easily maintained or repaired; in fact, this equipment exists and is widely used,14 and its use stimulates the local economy.

Suggestion 1: Focus should be on the part of the MA process to which robotics provide added value, i.e., where cost and complexity are minor factors in the overall performance.

Lessons learnt from previous unsuccessful attempts to produce robots for mine detection and/or removal usually have to do with getting them into the field or having them to operate properly. Such difficulties are mainly due to their weight (complex logistics), complexity (difficult maintenance and operation) and high cost (unaffordable by locals). Making them lighter would not be such a problem, but high cost is a reality of product development for small markets. The arising question is if reducing complexity reduces application. Sensible remote operations usually require complex mechanisms. Therefore, complexity, high cost and remote operations do not go well with close-in detection; in fact, it has not been well-accepted in the past. The growth of machinery15 (see “Landmines—Some Common Myths”16 for a contradictory voice on the application of machines) applied to area reduction, terrain preparation and post-clearance tasks indicates that high cost is accepted in these tasks. Although machines and respective logistics are expensive, machine-based demining can be more affordable than manual-based demining.

Suggestion 2: What history says, to some extent, is that area reduction is more receptive to high-cost technologies than close-in detection.

Probabilities and Determinism. In life-threatening tasks such as detection and clearance, probabilities are something to be discarded as much as possible, giving place to (quasi-)deterministic approaches. Despite all R&D efforts in multi-sensor fusion and respective envisioned advantages (e.g., reduction of false positives), multi-sensor fusion remains unsatisfactory with respect to robustness2; moreover, field personnel are conservative regarding these innovations.

Due to these two factors, metal detectors and the man with a probe continue to be the current practices, since they are believed to be highly procedural and conservative approaches. Therefore, enormous effort would have to be put into reversing this tendency in the near future, reflected in nouvelle techniques with low probabilities of acceptance.

Suggestion 3: Focus should be mainly on the parts of the MA process in which probabilities and risk assessment are already taking place.

Product's Life Cycle. As mentioned before, the MA market is small and shrinking; its nature is not that of a regular market since end-users are not usually the buyers—donors are. Hence, a conventional product’s life-cycle and return of investment is often hard to achieve.

Suggestion 4: The product's development should be (at least) partially funded. In order to guarantee a return on investment, technology transfer should be attainable.

Close-in vs. Area Reduction. Area reduction is preceded by an Impact Study, which selects potential minefields and prioritizes the actions in terms of a set of socio-economic factors. Therefore, a set of assumptions about cleared land has already been made, which could be modelled with probabilities. Area reduction can be performed using machines, dogs and other methods that do not meet manual demining requirements. Once more, probabilities are in play. Thus, area reduction has tacitly embedded the concept of probabilistic risk assessment in its procedures.

Suggestion 5: Area reduction is, by its own nature and current practices, a probabilistic process. The justification for Suggestion 3 applies here as well.

Suggestion 6: Close-in detection tends to be a deterministic task, which is achieved by systematic and conservative (pessimistic) approaches.

An Architecture Proposal

From the previously derived set of suggestions, one can conclude that the task more prone to accept high-tech tools is area reduction. Paying special attention to Conclusion 4 (product’s life cycle), it seems that technology transfer should be rewarded as much as possible. If one sees area reduction as a subset of remote monitoring, its solution could be applied to the following domains: civil protection, surveillance, remote environmental monitoring, law enforcement, etc.

Figure 1 depicts two main possible robotic applications and their extensions to domains beyond MA. A ground robot, for instance, can help in area reduction (e.g., carrying an odour sensor) and in detection and removal (e.g., carrying metal detectors). In addition, the same robot can be transferred to other domains, such as surveillance. Aerial vehicles can be used in area reduction (e.g., carrying thermal cameras) and during surveys (e.g., taking aerial
pictures), while being applied for remote monitoring (e.g., fire location) or in civil protection (e.g., disaster area assessment). The whole system can be seen as a “Generic Remote Monitoring Toolkit,” emphasizing the potential technology transfer.


Figure 1: Technology transfer potential.

Design Feasibility. Ground locomotion is a well-established technology, the most challenging task being making the robots light and cheap, yet reliable. Controlling helicopters is difficult yet feasible (the interested reader may find a related survey in “Control and Perception Techniques for Aerial Robotics”17). In conclusion, despite the project’s high ambitions, it is feasible.

Domain Applicability. In order to demonstrate the advantages of a system like the one described above for humanitarian demining, imagine the following potential scenarios:

A set of previous projects demonstrates the interest in aerial vehicles for MA; see for instance the SMART Project,18 the ARC Project19 and the Mineseeker Foundation Airship.20 Note that these scenarios have to be considered in the previously presented three-dimensional framework; for instance, ground vehicles may not be affordable in certain situations.

Conclusion

A three-dimensional framework was presented to categorize several potential scenarios for high-tech applications in the MA domain. It was concluded that MA is a wide domain with available niches for several types of technologies, provided that a correct assessment is performed (R&D embedded in a sustainable development process, highly tied to the end-user, donors and MA programmes). Furthermore, a possible roadmap presenting a success-oriented market introduction was presented, which led IntRoSys to conclude that area reduction is the most promising niche for introducing high-tech tools; technology transfer of the developed product is also an important asset in a development program. Finally, a robotic architecture that takes into account the proposed roadmap, mainly the technology transfer component, is proposed.

Endnotes

  1. SAFELANE, Measured Steps: Assessing Global Progress on Mine Action, in Canada's Guide to the Global Ban on Landmines. 1999: Ottawa. [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.mines.gc.ca/IV/menu-en.asp
  2. Cornelis, J. and H. Sahli. “Trends, Generic Conclusions, Open Questions.” In International Conference on Requirements and Technologies for the Detection, Removal and Neutralization of Landmines and UXO—EUDEM1-SCOT2003. 2003. VUB, Brussels, Belgium.
  3. GICHD/UNDP, Socio-Economic Approaches to Mine Action—An Operational Handbook. 2002, Geneva..
  4. Sahli, H., M. Bottoms and J. Cornelis, Eds. EUDEM2-SCOT-2003, International Conference on Requirements and Technologies for the Detection, Removal and Neutralization of Landmines and UXO. Vol. 1, 2. 2003: VUB, Brussels, Belgium.
  5. Canadian Centre for Mine Action Technologies, “What is the Difference Between Military (Countermine) and Humanitarian Demining?” [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.ccmat.gc.ca/Questions/index_e.html
  6. UNMAS, “IMAS 03.10—Guide to the Procurement of Mine Action Equipment.” 2003.
  7. Newnham, P. and D. Daniels. “The Market for Advanced Humanitarian Mine Detectors.” SPIE: Detection and Remediation Technologies for Mines and Minelike Targets. VI. 2001.
  8. Guirguis, R.P., “International Market for Humanitarian Demining Equipment and Technology,” in Standing Committee on Mine Clearance, Mine Awareness and Mine Action Technologies. 2002.
  9. Carruthers, A., J. McFee, D. Bergeron, Y. Das, R. Chesney and K. Russel. Scoping Study for Humanitarian Demining Technologies. 1999, Canadian Centre for Mine Action Technologies. Technical report DRES TR 1999-121.
  10. University of Western Australia, Deminer's Needs. [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/jpt/demining/needs/deminer-needs.html
  11. GICHD/UNDP, Mine Action Equipment: Study of Global Operational Needs. 2002, Geneva.
  12. UNMAS, “IMAS 03.30—Guide to the Research of Mine Action Technology.” 2003.
  13. Bach, H. “Demining Trends and R&D Challenges (Embracing Research and Development).” In Nordic Demining Research Forum, Summer Conference Bergen, Norway. 2003.
  14. Smith, A., “Myths, Mines and Ground Clearance.” Journal of Mine Action, 2003 (7.2). pp. 108–111. Online Available: http://maic.jmu.edu/journal/7.2/notes/smith/smith.htm
  15. GICHD, Mechanical Demining Equipment Catalogue 2004. 2004.
  16. University of Western Australia, “Landmines—Some Common Myths.” Online: http://www.mech.uwa.edu.au/jpt/demining/info/myths.html
  17. Ollero, A. and L. Merino, “Control and Perception Techniques for Aerial Robotics.” Annual Reviews in Control, 2004. 28: pp. 167–178.
  18. The SMART Project. [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.smart.rma.ac.be/.
  19. The ARC Project. [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.arc.vub.ac.be.
  20. The Mineseeker Foundation Airship. [Consult. Dec 2004] Online available: http://www.mineseeker.com/.

Contact Information

Pedro F. Santana, Eng..
Integrators for Robotic Systems, S.A. (IntRoSys)
Quinta da Torre, Campus FCT-UNL
2829-516 Caparica
Portugal
Tel: +351 966 726 671
E-mail: pfs@uninova.pt
Website: http://www.introsys-online.com