Low flying unmanned aircraft may one day be able to detect underground landmines, using methods developed by Australian scientists.
The scenario may seem far-fetched, but DSTO researchers, with assistance from CSIRO, are working to provide the Australian Defence Forces with a "rapid route clearance system" which would help to locate and deactivate landmines quickly and relatively safely.
According to the International Red Cross, at the current rate it will take 1,100 years to clear the world’s 119 million active buried landmines, while more than 60 people are killed or maimed by landmines daily.
Anti-personnel mines contain little, if any, metal and are therefore difficult to find using traditional detection techniques based on metal detection. While aerial applications may still be years away, scientists believe they are closer to being able to develop a new landmine detection technique using thermal imagery.
Computational mathematician Tony Miller from CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences is working with DSTO Land Operations Branch scientists Bob Seymour and Bruno Russo on the research project. CSIRO is providing mathematical and computational modelling skills to support the DSTO-conducted experiments.
"Working on this project is personally satisfying as I can apply my skills to something which may, in some small way, help reduce injuries from landmines," says Miller.
Miller says the physical basis for the modelling is simple: "Buried objects give rise to local disturbances in the ground surface temperature because they'll usually have different thermal properties from the surrounding soil. If this 'thermal footprint' of the object can be reliably detected (using, for example, thermal infra-red imagery), it will provide an indication of where a mine might be buried."
Thermal detection methods have the potential for so-called "stand-off" detection, as they would allow troops or peacekeepers to make quick, in-the-field assessments of a minefield from a relatively safe distance.
"But there's unlikely to be a single, 'magic' detection technique which works in all situations," says Miller, "so a number of technologies will be required and it's important to know the strengths and limitations of each technique."
The model developed by CSIRO allows predictions to be made about the effect on the "thermal footprint" of factors such as the mine type, the depth at which it is buried, and environmental factors such as soil type and local climatic conditions.
The model, confirmed by DSTO experiments, accurately predicts that a "hot spot" appears above a buried landmine during the day while a "cold spot" appears at night - the opposite temperature pattern, conveniently, to that of other buried objects such as rocks and metal fragments which could otherwise confuse detection.
Such mathematical modelling helps DSTO fine-tune its experiments and obtain theoretical indications of the effect of various factors which may influence the reliability of the detection method. The project is part of wider DSTO-CSIRO activities aimed at improving landmine detection.
"Even though much still needs to be done before a practical and reliable technology will be available for in-the-field use, " says Miller, "the work so far has been a worthwhile example of how CSIRO and DSTO can work together."
Dr Tony Miller
Phone: (08) 8303 8770 (w)
CSIRO Mathematical and Information Sciences
Dr Bob Seymour
Phone: 0419 810 164 (mobile)
(08) 8259 6563 (w)
Head of System Concepts
Land Operations Division, DSTO
Materials provided by CSIRO Australia. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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