One Man's Crusade To Destroy Mines
TOKYO — A little gadget called the "butterfly" really got to Hiroshi Tomita. The lightweight, mostly plastic land mines were first used in Afghanistan by Soviet soldiers, who scattered them from helicopters. Children sometimes found the palm-sized devices and played with them until the mines blew up.
"I saw the 'butterfly' and heard the experiences of Afghan mine victims," the square-jawed Japanese entrepreneur explains. "And I became very angry."
It's easy to get upset about land mines, dregs of war that indiscriminately injure or kill thousands of people every year. But Mr. Tomita has turned his anger into action by creating a device that would allow land-mine clearers to see computerized images of objects under the surface. The device builds on American microwave technology called "ground penetrating radar" (GPR) that helps locate sinkholes.
Tomita's company, Geo Search Co. Ltd., is one of many efforts worldwide to find faster and safer ways to destroy land mines in many war-ravaged countries.
The task these deminers face is slow, dangerous, and unending. Approximately 120 million land mines wait underfoot in some 70 countries, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. Agencies involved in the clearing of mines and assisting their victims estimate that these weapons have killed or maimed 15,000 people a year for the past two decades. An estimated 80 percent of the victims have been civilians.
Land mines have become increasingly sophisticated - some use little or no metal and can propel themselves to chest-height just before exploding - but the techniques for removing them are rudimentary. Deminers use metal detectors, sharp sticks for probing underground, and a light touch. Trained dogs are also used to locate mines, but the animals are subject to fatigue and missteps.
Several scientists and specialists are researching ways to detect land mines more safely and quickly, but Tomita may be the only one who has earned a living from GPR, one of the most promising technologies under study. In 1992, Geo Search caught the attention of Patrick Blagden, a retired British Army general who was then the head of a United Nations mine-removal unit. Mr. Blagden visited the Tokyo-based company and encouraged Tomita to create a GPR-based device for mine clearers.
"Since then I have been most impressed by what a small company can do," General Blagden says from his home outside London. "He's received very little encouragement from anyone and no money."
Galvanized by his 1994 encounter with the "butterfly" at a UN conference in Sweden, Tomita says he has spent $2 million of Geo Search profits to develop a demonstration prototype called Mine Eye. Now the project needs another $2 million, which he says the company cannot provide. "We are looking for sponsors," he adds.
Tomita isn't looking for investors, because he is pursuing Mine Eye as a nonprofit, humanitarian venture. In February, he founded the Japan Alliance for Humanitarian Demining Support to encourage other companies and groups to back his project.
He moves with the self-confidence of a successful businessman, but the subject of land mines brings out a missionary's zeal. "We are not interested in making a profit with this item," he asserts. "I want to save kids."
Tomita might not be able to make a profit under any circumstances. The most mine-affected areas tend to be poor countries recovering from war. "Tommy is well aware," says Blagden, using Tomita's nickname, "that research doesn't pay, development doesn't pay. The only thing that pays is production, and he is not a large-scale electronics producer."
A second motive is a sort of benign nationalism. Tomita says pacifist Japan should support demining programs and technologies as a way to win goodwill in Asia, where memories of World War II still trouble international relations.
But it will take more than noble goals to make Mine Eye fast and reliable enough to use in a minefield. "There is no way you can talk me into following anyone's GPR into any minefield," says a US-based demining specialist who asked for anonymity. The specialist has not examined Mine Eye, but is familiar with the technology it incorporates, and for now prefers using more traditional methods.
"It's not there yet," acknowledges Tim McGregor, president of Geo Search's US subsidiary in Houston. He says Mine Eye needs to be more sensitive, faster, and more accurate.
Even so, Tomita's project is encouraging news for some deminers, partly because the Japanese businessman has no ties to any military. "If someone like Tomita comes up with a brilliant solution [to the difficulties involved in using GPR to find mines], he's going to use it for humanitarian purposes," says Vernon Joynt, managing director of Mechem, a government-owned research and demining firm based in Pretoria, South Africa.
Demining technology suffers, experts say, because funders worry that any new innovations will be put to military use or that militaries might keep a promising invention secret to keep it out of enemy hands. As it is, military deminers have more sophisticated means to work with than "humanitarian" mine clearers, but their devices aim to "breach" or clear a path through a minefield.
Humanitarian mine clearers try to find and remove every mine.
The process is slow. Every time a detector picks up a signal, deminers must probe the earth to see whether the metal object is a mine or, say, a nail. Tomita hopes Mine Eye will save time, since it would allow deminers to scan a spot where a detector has found metal. The device presents a computerized image of what its sensors detect, allowing an operator to see the size and shape of a object.
As it is, the pace of demining crawls in some areas. In one-time battlefields, says Mr. Joynt, "we find 1,000 or more 'false alarms' per mine, and each one has to be treated like you're James Bond."