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