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Artificial ‘Noses’ to Sniff Out Land Mines
August 1, 2013   
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Millions of land mines remain buried—and active—in dozens of countries around the world. They pose a constant hazard for both soldiers and civilians. Detecting and dismantling these hidden mines remains a difficult and risky task.

Military engineers and researchers worldwide are working to develop better and faster ways to neutralize such devices. A team of Polish researchers from the Warsaw University of Technology has contributed by developing a hi-tech solution in the form of a device equipped with two special artificial “noses” to sniff out land mines. The remote-controlled device—controlled by a mine disposal expert from a safe place away from where mine is located—also features an ultrasound probe and a special cannon for destroying mines.

“There are millions of land mines buried in the ground around the world and no one really knows what should be done about it,” says Robert Głębocki, Ph.D., the research team leader at the Warsaw University of Technology. “While in European countries mines left behind after the end of an armed conflict are usually found and destroyed, a whole lot of land mines remain in African and Asian countries where soldiers are deployed for peacekeeping missions. These mines kill and cripple soldiers and civilians.”

Scientists around the world are conducting research to help deal with the problem of land mines. However, since World War II mine detection has become more difficult, because many land mines now have non-metallic—PVC or ceramic—casings, Głębocki says. As a result, metal detectors cannot spot them, he adds.

Experts in the United States and Germany, for example, are working on mine disposal systems, but many of these devices are either too energy-intensive or too sensitive, according to Głębocki. There are different methods for detecting mines around the world, but none of these has led to the development of a device manufactured on a large scale, Głębocki says.

The Warsaw University of Technology researchers led by Głębocki have developed their mine disposal system as part of a project entitled “An autonomous system for detecting and destroying non-metallic mines,” with co-financing from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and the National Center for Research and Development (NCBiR).

In the system developed by the Polish researchers, the search for a mine begins with the use of a special ultrasound probe. By sending out an ultrasound beam, the device checks if any mine-like object is present in the ground. The ultrasound signal bounces off the object encountered and returns to a sensitive microphone. If the system detects something that might resemble a mine, it covers the site with a special “hood” and performs a scent analysis. The analysis is carried out using the so-called artificial nose, or a device that identifies the presence of specific compounds in the air. The inspiration for developing such a device was the excellent sense of smell in dogs that help detect land mines.

The first “nose” checks the air around the vehicle, and the other directly on the ground, a spot directly over a potential mine. “We do not search for the scent of the explosive, which is enclosed in a casing, but for the casing itself, because it has a scent. If it is made of PVC, it releases chlorine compounds,” says Głębocki.

The artificial “noses” and the ultrasound probe are mounted on a robot constructed at the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements in Warsaw.

The mine disposal vehicle will be fitted with a small cannon firing gel or sand at a mine in order to detonate it. The vehicle will then backtrack along its path so that it is not damaged.

The vehicle is not designed to scan large areas, but rather roads used by civilians or troops. The machine can be pre-programmed, and the route and area that it is expected to travel can be stored in its memory.

Each component of the system can be used in sectors not necessarily linked with defense. The artificial “nose” can be used by the police or customs officers, for example to detect cases of cigarette or drug smuggling. It can also be used to check the freshness of food, the researchers say.

The price of the system, if production is launched, will depend on the size of the order. “If we were to build a single unit, the cost would be around zl.300,000-400,000. With 10-20 units, it could be down to around zl.100,000 per unit,” Głębocki says.

Researchers from four faculties at the Warsaw University of Technology and from the Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements in Warsaw worked on developing the system. Each research unit built a different part of the device. The Warsaw University of Technology’s Faculty of Chemistry was primarily responsible for the artificial “nose” and for explosive detection. The Faculty of Physics built the ultrasound probe, and the Faculty of Production Engineering constructed the cannon. The Faculty of Power and Aeronautical Engineering played the leading role, being responsible for the control and movement of the vehicle and for the on-board computer.
Olga Majewska
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