Drones in the field: UAVs as a tool for clearing mines

It has been reported that drones (UAV), could be used in efforts to clear minefields in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA) Director General has told the Azerbaijan news agency, APA, of plans to use drones to undertake territorial research and discover minefields. Unexploded ordinance represent an ongoing threat to security, from Azerbaijan to Vietnam, Cambodia to Lebanon.  It is possible to use UAVs to discover minefields by analysing changes in the soil around the land mines, as they often cause distinct changes in soil structure. It is believed this can be picked up by instruments and surveillance devices attached to a UAV. The method has been successfully used previously at an ANAMA base in Goygol, in North West Azerbaijan.   The use of drones for such an operation will not only reduce risk to mine clearance personnel (and others) but also, it has been argued, ensures a more thorough and meticulous search of a dangerous area.

The use of this technology on minefields has been previously been performed by a number of research organisations. An airborne minefield area reduction scheme was undertaken in Croatia between 2001 and 2003, funded by the European Commission. They used a Camcopter UAV which was supported by the creation of a Mine Information System (MIS). The MIS contained information relating to the minefield such as reference maps, orthophoto maps, drawings, lists of mine incidents, digital models of the land and information on land use. This information was then used by the UAV operator to examine the minefield and identify threats. In the final report, this project was considered to have fulfilled its objectives. However caveats were made that more assessments needed to be made of the technology to ensure that it would be beneficial and cost effective.

Fast forward a decade and it now seems technology in this area has suitably advanced so that more successful mine detection endeavours are now possible.  The United States has developed a system for detecting minefields called Airborne Standoff Minefield Detection System (ASTAMIDS). ASTAMIDS is a laser detection system that can penetrate the ground and detect thermal and visual anomalies. Whilst it is not a system that is exclusively designed for use with UAVs, it is possible to mount it to a number of aerial vehicles such as the MQ-8 Fire Scout. It is employed in co-ordination with ground units and is a fast way of detecting minefields. The system is not as accurate as detection by ground troops, however it is said to do a good enough job to avert the dangers of a minefield.

In this context, the benefit of unarmed drones is clear – reducing harm to personnel, able to perform complex tasks with ease and offering alternative solutions to entrenched problems.  There is undoubtedly merit for the further development and evaluation of such schemes.

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