February 21, 2024

Mechanical Mine Clearance – A Safer Alternative to Manual Detection

Landmines and unexploded ordnances left behind from conflicts continue to endanger lives long after the fighting has ceased. Clearing these dangerous remnants of war manually is an arduous and risky task. However, recent technological advancements have brought safer mechanical alternatives to the forefront that can help minimize risks to deminers. This article examines some key mechanical mine clearance systems that are making the important work of removing landmines more efficient and protective of human life.

Remote-Controlled Demining Vehicles
One of the most common types of Mechanical mine clearance systems methods employs remote-controlled vehicles. These machines allow deminers to conduct clearance activities from a safe distance rather than having to work directly in minefields. Some examples of remote-controlled vehicles include excavators, flail machines, tillers, and vegetation cutters.

Excavators are useful for removing landmines buried just below the surface or detecting other indications of ordnances through soil excavation. Their long reach arm and grabber or bucket attachment allows deminers to carefully excavate suspected areas. Cameras mounted on the excavator also provide a visual for operators. However, excavators are less effective for denser minefields where ordnances may be deeper.

For such situations, flail machines have proven highly effective. Flail machines use a rotating cylindrical head with long chained hammers that “flail” or strike the ground at high speeds. This violent pounding and impact causes buried landmines and UXO to detonate. The chains and cage structure of the flail protect the machine itself from any explosions. Several flailing passes over a given area are usually required for maximum clearance. While noisy and needing wide working distances, flail systems have cleared vast mined regions.

Tiller machines also help detonate buried ordnances but do so by tilling or churning the soil rather than flailing. Their revolving tines agitate the ground to trigger devices. Tillers are more targeted than flails and gentler on the soil structure but may require multiple passes.

Vegetation cutters mounted on remote-controlled vehicles trim tall grass and bushes to improve detection and access for other systems. This preparation phase is vital, as dense foliage can hide indications of ordnances. Cutters also detonate any shallow buried devices inadvertently.

Thanks to their remote operation, these mechanical clearance tools minimize the risks that manual deminers face on a daily basis. Though not as meticulous as manual detection, they provide a safer first pass to reduce risks before people move in to conduct final verification and clearance.

Detect and Avoid Technologies
Rather than detonating devices in situ, some mechanical systems focus on detection to identify the precise location of buried landmines and UXO for subsequent removal. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) arrays towed behind vehicles are commonly used for this purpose. GPR technology works by transmitting radio waves or pulses into the ground and analyzing the reflected signals. Differences in soil characteristics and densities allow GPR to detect foreign objects with a high degree of accuracy at varying depths when conditions are suitable.

Data collected from GPR is then analyzed to create maps marking the suspected hazardous areas requiring further investigation or clearance. Marking these ‘SHAs’ helps avoid them during follow-up work and restricts any pressure-regulated detonation to only confirmed ordnances.

Other technologies used for detection include metal detectors, chemical detection methods analyzing traces of explosives in soil samples, and artificial intelligence increasingly being applied to automatically analyze vast amounts of GPR, imagery and other collected data indicators. The detected tactical information is then used to plan the next steps involving exploitation, neutralization or avoidance of potential explosive devices.

While detection systems don’t actively remove mines, they play a crucial role in making subsequent clearance safer by precisely locating threats rather than having people work blindly in mined regions. Combined with remote interventions like excavation, the risks to human life are minimized.

Mobile Detection Platforms
Some mechanical detection systems offer mobile platforms providing fully integrated detection and clearance capabilities from safety of vehicles. An example includes the ZARCh mine-clearing machine which combines flailing, tilling, detection using multiple sensor arrays and control and monitoring stations for the crew. Surveyors control detection sensors and clearing mechanisms installed on an armored platform driving through minefields. When mines are located, the machine can either detonate or mark them from safety.

Other all-in-one platforms integrate more than one type of detection technology on moving carrier vehicles. Some even use drones to transport modular detection payloads performing aerial surveys before ground systems move in. This integrated approach streamlines the processes while maintaining remote operations.

While a combination of methods usually achieves the best results, mechanical assets have undoubtedly accelerated the rate of mine clearance when deployed strategically. They have made the important work of returning lands to safe civilian use more effective as well as reduced risks to humans. Ongoing improvements in vehicle armor, automation, multi-sensor data fusion as well as new detection technologies will strengthen mechanical tools. However, their roles remain complementary to well-trained manual teams essential for final verification and explosive ordnance disposal. Together, both mechanical and manual approaches will continue making confined areas mine-safe to eventually fulfil our shared goal of a world free of the dangers of landmines.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it