Beating the Better Mousetrap, Part 2

In 1997, a scientific meeting at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed that “the most reliable demining method” was the use of a metal detector by a human operator.  However, the meeting also noted that metal detectors were subject to very high rates of false positives, with as many as one thousand false positives for every real landmine discovered.  The meeting also raised the fear of all-plastic mines which would be undetectable by even the most sophisticated metal detector (MIT Technology Review).

There have been two lines of response to these concerns: legal and technical.  The legal response is housed in the Amended Protocol II of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.  The Protocol states, in its technical annex, that all anti-personnel landmines produced after January 1, 1997 must be detectable by “commonly-available technical mine detection equipment,” such as a metal detector through the use of materials that would produce the same or stronger response as 8 grams of iron.  Any anti-personnel mines produced before January 1, 1997 must be retrofitted with materials or a device that would produce the same or stronger response as 8 grams of iron.  Unfortunately, states could defer compliance with the directive to retrofit pre-1997 mines for 9 years after entry into force of the Protocol, which meant that states had until December 3, 2007 to retrofit their plastic mines and states were only required “to the extent feasible, minimize the use” of plastic mines until that date (United Nations, pdf).  Therefore plastic anti-personnel mines could easily have been used for many years despite the legal response (and plastic anti-tank mines have never been regulated).

The technical response has been varied.  In our last post we covered some of the proposed solutions (bees, mice, nanofilms, oh my!), but other developments have also emerged.  The United States Navy has issued a call for prototypes of handheld landmine detectors capable of locating mines with little or no metallic content, basically plastic landmines.  The Navy feels that currently available landmine detectors “could be redesigned with lower size and weight with no loss in capability.”  The Navy wants these prototypes for use by Special Forces and not for the general public (Military & Aerospace Electronics), but if the technology is effective, I would hope it becomes available to humanitarian demining.  This call also made me curious about the current state of the art in metal detectors, so I did what anyone would do: I went to the local arms show.

Last year, I went to the Association of the United States Army’s (AUSA) exposition which is one of the largest arms shows in the world.  There I checked up on the new spider mine system designed as an alternative to persistent, victim-activated landmines. This year, I wanted to see the mine detection tools on offer and visited two vendors, CEIA-USA and Foerster. Both make similar devices that are widely used within the humanitarian demining community.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining profiles the Foerster MINEX 2FD 4.530 metal detector (pictured below) (GICHD) and notes that it (or its variants) have been used in 30 countries, including Egypt, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Tunisia in Africa.  According to GICHD, “No significant limitations [have been] reported to date.”


Photo courtesy of the Author

The GICHD also profiles CEIA’s MIL-D1 which has 16,000 units in the field in many countries including Burundi, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Morocco, Namibia, Senegal, South Africa and Sudan.  Giovanni Giustino, the Sales Manager at the AUSA exposition, told me that CEIA’s products are used by Mechem, the South African demining organization and Mines Advisory Group has co-sponsored a Death Valley Challenge, a 200 mile cycling trip, with CEIA to raise funds (Mines Advisory Group).  Giustino was also kind enough to invite me to CEIA’s Italian headquarters for training in the use of their detectors, an offer I would love to be able to accept one day.

In addition to the MIL-D1, CEIA also showed me their MIL-D1/DS (pictured below) which is specially designed to locate unexploded ordnance like cluster munitions and is being used by Mines Advisory Group in Laos (Mines Advisory Group).

Both CEIA’s and Foerster’s metal detectors are “smart” machines with built-in electronics to adapt to, or “learn” the local soil conditions.  If the local soil is high in iron ore, the detectors will adjust and compensate to the background level rather than give off a continuous indication of the presence of metal.  Both manufacturers’ detectors can locate the minimum metal mines required under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons and their widespread usage and lack of known faults suggest that these and similar products will continue to be the basis of humanitarian demining.

One final note, barely 100 feet away from Foerster’s booth at the AUSA expo one could find Textron Systems booth; Textron being the manufacturer of the new alternative anti-personnel landmine system.  So within a few steps you could see the latest landmines and their detection systems.


Michael P. Moore, November 2, 2012

6 Comments on “Beating the Better Mousetrap, Part 2”

  1. mark bremner says:

    Michael – are there protocols and procedures documented anywhere for civilians working on the ground in previously “cleared and supposedly safe” areas? We are surveying a large area in Cunene province of Southern Angola for a proposed greenfields sugarcane project. The area is supposedly “clean” and “all known threat areas have been sanitised”, but I know large areas are still covered with dense bush and it is a known battlefield from during the Cuban-South African war and thereafter. How safe is “safe” – can demining certificates issued by CNIDH ultimately be relied upon when working in such remote areas? The obvious rules line sticking to used paths and travelling with locals come to mind, but I was wondering if anyone has ever written anything more scientific that could assist civilians who are not military trained sappers

    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for your question. CNIDAH (and all national mine action authorities) need to follow their own mine action standards which in Angola’s case were developed with the assistance of the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD, I don’t know of any specific guidance for working or traveling through cleared areas (I would hope such guidance is never needed), but you may also check to find out who was actually responsible for clearance in the region in which you are working and check with them about their quality assurance methods (or if you find out who they are, I am happy to follow up for you).
      I do know that Angola has been prioritizing mine clearance based upon development opportunities such as yours and I think they would want to be certain before declaring a space clear and safe for usage. I wish I could offer you greater assurance, but again, my best advice would be to find out who did the clearance, ask them about the standards they followed and what their quality assurance protocol is.
      Also, thanks for the work you are doing. By returning the cleared land to productive use, you are making the best argument for continued demining and for careful demining.

  2. Mike Kendellen says:

    Interesting that a company thinks there is still money to be made in manufacturing landmines despite a global ban on producing them. Did you meet anyone from the Marketing Division?

    All of the new technologies seem to ignore the fact that landmines are located in some very difficult terrain where weather conditions such as rain, snow, heat and cold impact productivity and presumably the functioning of some of these fancy ideas. Are these technologies easily transportable up mountainsides, in swamps, in sandstorms and hold together on the back of a truck over long distances? Who’s making the spare parts?

    Also there are Bucknell University (in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania) professors who have “devised a system to train rats to recognize and respond to the explosives, using materials that can be delivered anywhere with instructions that anyone can use.” The US Department of Defense gave them $100,000 for the research.

    This invention differs from previous rat training in that, according to the professors, it is
    “something that could drop out of the sky and give you everything you need to train rodents to sniff out land mines, even if the people who are using it can’t read or write,” Still, after the parachutes land the illiterate deminers will need help getting through the instruction manual. The last I heard no field tests have been conducted yet.


    • Thanks, Mike.

      Ah yes, Bucknell’s plan to put miniature GPS backpacks on the backs of mice and drop them into minefields. It’s a similar plan to the neuroscientists who want to genetically engineer mice to sniff out explosive vapors, but again the issue is once you find the landmines, you still have to clear them. However, compared to the costs of some other plans, $100,000 seems like a fairly small amount (but I would have preferred to see the DoD spend that money on victim assistance).

      As for Textron, no, I did not have a chance to speak with anyone from their booth. And unfortunately, the US government still seems very keen to produce the alternative systems and invests tens of millions of dollars into the Spider mine program every year, so, of course the company will take the money on offer. I like the idea of reaching out to the Marketing Division; I may try that…


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