How a Deadly Explosive, When 3D Printed, Could Be Life-Saving

People who are digging up unexploded ordinances sometimes don't know how to handle them. Could these replicas change that?
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Chris Natt

Things made with 3D-printers tend to fall into two broad categories: one is silly bordering on useless -- incredibly detailed chess pieces, a mug that looks surprised, a mask that looks like Tom Hanks, what have you.

The other is live-saving bordering on from the future, like the idea that we might soon have 3D-printed organs.

Here's one for the second category: 3D-printed replicas of landmines, which British design engineer Chris Natt hopes can help train landmine clearers to better unearth and disable the explosives.

Natt has made four precise plastic models of the most common types of munitions that kill and maim an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people a year across more than 80 different countries. (A 3D printer can create replicas of solid objects by squeezing molten material -- usually plastic -- in layers through a tip, kind of like cupcake frosting.)

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Chris Natt

Buried land mines are usually relics of armed conflicts, and the people clearing them are sometimes untrained or barely literate. There are different types of demining tools for different terrains, but some consist of little more than metal detectors and trowels, he said. Natt estimates that around 100 deminers have been killed or injured each year since 1999, and he aims to familiarize people in mine-filled areas with these obscure, deadly objects.

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UN

His dummy mines are equipped with sound and light systems that go off when the mine is handled too aggressively or is uncovered in the wrong way.

"At the moment, the tools we have are sheets of paper with pictures on them," Natt, who works at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College, told me. "Part of this is educating them about the risks of the mine without having lots of literature. It demonstrates the unpredictability of what mines are like."

He admits that the 3D-printing aspect of his work is more of a useful prototyping technique and a gimmick -- if the devices were actually used in the field, they'd have to be mass produced in a cheaper, more efficient way.

The other stages of his project include a massive infographic detailing how landmines work, followed by an attempt to create better, more "blastproof" demining tools. According to Natt, the existing implements don't adequately protect workers if the mine detonates.

"If you had an extra foot and a half [on the tool] and made sure the hands and organs were outside the blast radius," he said, "theoretically they could walk away from a blast with their hands."

h/t New Scientist

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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