World's Scientists Learn New Ways to Clear Deadly Land Mines

Improved technologies help, but bigger strides are needed

One of the worst legacies of war is the land mine.

Sown by soldiers in wartime, it often inflicts its heaviest toll on civilians in peacetime. Every year, mines cause thousands of casualties, half of them children. And the process of removing them is so laborious that the world is falling behind in its efforts to control this outmoded and barbaric weapon.

Every year, teams clear about 100,000 land mines. But soldiers plant some 2.5 million more annually. Add those to the nearly 120 million mines already laid in 64 countries and the future looks grim.

Fortunately, scientists are beginning to find technologies that, with a little adaptation, can be used to speed up mine-clearing efforts. These devices range from mapping software to ground-penetrating radars. Mine-clearing is getting more attention than ever before because leaders in many countries are beginning to push for it. But they still have far to go.

Take Bosnia. During the years of ethnic strife, Serb, Croat, and Muslim forces planted mines that still riddle the countryside. By one estimate, up to 20 percent of the territory is off-limits, because it could contain land mines. This not only poses a serious hazard, it is an economic drag, because that land cannot be farmed or built upon until the United Nations' mine-clearing teams declare it safe.

So what mine-detection technology do the teams use? Metal detectors are often useless, because modern mines can be made almost completely from plastic. Advanced sensors? "They're under the science-fiction part of the department," quips one supervisor at the UN Mine Action Center. Mine-clearers have to rely on sticks and dogs' noses.

Locals trained by the UN use sticks to prod every 2 inches of ground in a suspected minefield. On a good day, a mine-clearer might cover less than 20 square yards of territory. At current rates (and if the money doesn't run out), eliminating mines from Bosnia could take a decade.

Explosive-sniffing dogs help the process. And thanks to a US government gift of computer mapping software, called MapInfo, the UN can track the progress of clearing mines and figure out which uncleared minefields pose the greatest threat and need the quickest attention.

Later this month, the center should get more US help. The Humanitarian Demining Technology Development Program - a project run by US Special Operations out of Fort Belvoir, Va. - is scheduled to ship a number of technologies, including a special hardening foam that keeps mines from detonating and a remotely operated ground-clearing machine that makes mines easier to see.

But the most critical technology - mine detection - is still not ready for the field, says Harry (Hap) Hambric, project leader for the demining program. Because each sensor can't pick out every hazard, multiple sensors of varying types need to be brought together. Such a device is still a few years away, he adds.

That is a few years too late for Richard Walden, president of Operation USA, an international relief organization based in Los Angeles. For decades, he complains, the military only pursued mine-clearing technologies good enough to get its troops through. So two years ago, horrified at the human toll land mines were inflicting in places such as Cambodia, Mr. Walden set up Operation Landmine to push for civilian mine-clearing technologies.

Working with national laboratories, NASA, and defense contractors such as Lockheed and Hughes Aerospace, the group is trying to bring high-tech sensing equipment from the lab to the minefields of Cambodia, where some of the most primitive mine-clearing techniques are used. Unless something is done, Walden adds, it will take "more than 100 years to clear the existing mines at the rate they're going."

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