July 10, 2006 12:23 PM PDT

High tech's slow march in land mine campaign

The search for land mines is not something done in haste. Nor, as it turns out, is the search for new technology that could be used to find mines.

Despite a lot of promises about high-tech advances, people working in land mine clearance are using technology that hasn't changed dramatically since the Second World War. And a lot of them say that--given the risks of using technology that's still in its shakeout period--they'd just as soon stick with the tried-and-true.

"We need more of what we know works, rather than new technologies," said Noel Mulliner, technology coordinator for the U.N. Mine Action Service. "New technology is not going to get into the field fast enough. We want more of the simple stuff."

Land mines are a serious problem in many countries, from postconflict places like Bosnia to simmering trouble spots such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Along with unexploded hand grenades, mortar rounds and artillery submunitions, they are a potentially deadly litter from battle and can persist often many years after a cease-fire has been reached. Casualties run into the tens of thousands a year, according to estimates.

Over the years, there's been no shortage of clever ideas for finding and eliminating mines, from training bees and rats to sniff out explosives to using lasers to detonate mines and other ordnance. The problem is that those that aren't completely far-fetched can take too long to get off the drawing board or cost too much for cash-strapped humanitarian demining operations.

Photos: Looking for land mines

The most promising advance, just now getting into the field, involves a variation on the common metal detector--combining it with ground-penetrating radar into a multisensor system called HSTAMIDS. The U.S. military has been using it for a couple of years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a version for civilian use is going through trials.

Other, more mundane forms of high tech, such as Internet hookups and Google Earth, are also starting to find more widespread use in the field of humanitarian demining. They can be of help in the remote areas typically targeted in efforts by civilian and nongovernmental organizations to remove land mines from former battle zones.

The goal here isn't a military one, with an army trying to speed from one point to another across defensive positions and under fire from an enemy force. Rather, it's an effort--at once global and local--to return communities to normal life, so that civilians can go about their daily business of raising crops, accessing potable water, taking goods to markets and just letting children out to play.

"It doesn't take too many mines to keep people from using a road," said Al Carruthers, technology officer for the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining.

Counting the cost
Precise numbers of victims are hard to come by. The best estimate by Landmine Monitor, the reporting arm of the International Committee to Ban Landmines, is that there are between 15,000 and 20,000 new casualties each year; in the 2004-2005 reporting period, those injuries occurred in 58 countries.

It's not just fatalities that are a concern. Antipersonnel land mines tend to be designed to maim, rather than kill, resulting in the loss of a foot or a hand, or some other debilitating wound.

Scent of a mine

When metal detectors can't give a precise reading of what's in the ground, send in the dogs. Or the bees.

Read about alternatives to detectors here

The exact number of land mines is also elusive, with worldwide figures ranging well into the millions. On the positive side, it appears that fewer are now going into the ground than are coming out, but the problem of clearance remains a daunting one.

Often, the countries most in need of assistance are those facing significant financial problems--they're developing economies further weighed down by the overall costs of recovering from war. Because they don't have a lot of money to spend, they're not the most promising customers for companies that build gear such as chemical sensors and armor-plated trucks. Instead, those companies tend to focus on military buyers, and the R&D and resulting equipment may later trickle down to nonmilitary groups.

"There's a much higher priority for people who have big bucks," Mulliner said.

In addition, demining gear has to be tough enough for sometimes rough handling in rugged terrain and a variety of climates, from rocky mountains to dense forests.

So while there's great promise in some high-tech options, said Dennis Barlow, director of the Mine Action Information Center at James Madison University, "generally, the greater promise...is still going to be whether (demining) can be done in a low-cost, low-tech way."

CONTINUED: Upgrading the metal detector…
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