Forget the Artificial Sniffer

The United States has pursued expensive high-tech solutions to the problem of land-mine clearance—but simpler methods may be in order.

In a cavernous machine shop at Fort Belvoir, in northern Virginia, stands an eleven-foot-high bulldozer. Originally manufactured by the Swiss construction-equipment company Liebherr, it has been customized with thick steel plating on the undercarriage, a protective cockpit, and a special rotating tiller that is guided by ultrasonic depth-control sensors. The tiller is designed to "scarify the ground and bring large objects to the surface," Mike Collins, the Army engineer who adapted the machine, told me. The revamped bulldozer is for clearing land mines. Its final cost is likely to be half a million dollars.

Fort Belvoir is home to the Army's Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate, which in turn houses the Humanitarian Demining R&D Program. Although the United States has so far refused to sign the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning the use of anti-personnel mines (it has cited, among other rationales, the need to continue mining the border between North and South Korea), in October of 1997 the Clinton Administration pledged to eliminate the global threat to civilians from land mines by 2010. Since then the United States has spent $255 million on "humanitarian mine action," which includes civilian mine-awareness programs, training for foreign de-miners, and development of new de-mining technology. Some $54 million of that money has gone to the Pentagon's R&D efforts, chief among them the program at Fort Belvoir.

Research efforts are under way outside the Pentagon as well, in both the private and the public sector. Government-supported efforts include the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative and the Army Research Lab program, which award basic-research grants to universities around the country, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, the organization that developed the early version of the Internet), which is pursuing highly experimental solutions that could take years to produce results. Among the programs DARPA has funded are a $25 million quest to develop an artificial dog's nose (at present dogs are the only mine detectors that can sense explosives rather than metal) and a $2.5 million effort to investigate whether honeybees could be trained to pinpoint land mines and other military targets.

The engineers at Fort Belvoir, in contrast, focus on developing tools that can be used by de-miners currently in the field. Those tools include the Air-Spade, which rapidly clears the earth covering suspected mines; the Rhino, a remote-controlled tiller for mechanically unearthing mines; and the mini-flail, a remote-controlled vehicle that thrashes the ground with spinning chains to detonate mines.

Ingenious as these devices are, many of them will never find their way to a minefield. And some of those that do—for example, a twelve-foot-long weed trimmer for clearing brush-have proved to be unreliable, useless, or even dangerous in real-world conditions.

L and mines are easily detected, but exceedingly difficult to distinguish from the tin cans, spent cartridges, and other metallic debris that litter the world's war zones. Fewer than one percent of all signals from de-miners' metal detectors indicate land mines. Moreover, the technology used in the field has barely advanced since World War II. By far the most prevalent system remains the so-called creep-and-probe method: a de-miner uses a metal detector to locate an "anomaly" underground and then probes the ground with a stick to determine whether the anomaly is a mine. Once discovered, mines are carefully dug up and detonated in place or removed. The process is laborious and inefficient as well as dangerous.

There's also the problem of where to look. Combatants in countries such as Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Mozambique have hardly restricted themselves to well-defined battlefields; indeed, civilians have frequently been their targets. Because mines could be anywhere, searchers must look everywhere. "The disposing of individual mines can be achieved rapidly, but to search every square centimetre of land takes time," Mike Croll, a former engineer in the British army who has led mine-clearance programs around the world, wrote in The History of Landmines (1998). According to de-miners, up to 90 percent of their time is spent combing areas that ultimately prove to be free of mines.

The task is further complicated by the fact that mine detection is what scientists call a "multivariate problem," resistant to uniform solutions. More than 800 kinds of land mines, many of crude local design, are in use today. They are laid in widely varying and usually harsh terrain. Mine detectors that work well in the Cambodian jungle may be useless on Afghanistan's arid plateaus; a sensor designed to work in clay is of little help in the sands of the Sahara. But researchers have been slow to adapt their efforts accordingly: only a few years ago they commonly remarked that a Nobel Prize awaited the inventor of a safe, universally effective mine detector. Recently that view has given way to a sober realism. While some scientists carry on the search for an electronic sniffer, the Army has begun to shift from seeking ultra-high-tech equipment applicable everywhere to a "toolbox" approach aimed at supplying a range of simpler devices suitable for different conditions.

There is, however, no "procurement path" for the equipment developed at Fort Belvoir. Because the United States is not officially in the business of mine clearance, the Army's new de-mining technology has no built-in market. And the Air-Spades and Rhinos find few customers among the governments of poor, war-ravaged countries, or the nongovernmental organizations that work in those countries. Angola and Cambodia, for example, would have a hard time buying half-million-dollar bulldozers—and at any rate, after more than two years of development the revamped Liebherr machine is still undergoing field trials and modifications.

In the end, an effective de-miners' toolbox may not need much expensive gadgetry. In the province of Bengo, in Angola (one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, in which a million people have been displaced by war), the German nongovernmental organization Menschen gegen Minen (People Against Mines) has since 1996 achieved impressive results with a system that integrates new but relatively modest technology with classic creep-and-probe methods. First an armored truck with a cutting attachment—much simpler than the bulldozer I saw at Fort Belvoir-clears the vegetation from a suspected minefield. Next de-miners, working with metal detectors and dogs, locate and mark suspected mines. Then the mines are defused or detonated on site or removed and blown up in bulk. Finally, an armored Caterpillar grader levels the ground, piling up berms that denote the boundaries of the mine-free zone. MgM's system can be readily transported (all the equipment fits into a C-130 cargo plane) and was designed for easy maintenance and repair. By the end of last year some 56,000 displaced people had returned safely to their homes in Bengo Province. The cost of the mine clearance: less than $6 million. De-miner casualties: zero.