More drones for demining operations

It seems the idea of drone technology clearing landmines is not really a far-fetched one, after all.

Following our report a few weeks ago about how a humanitarian organisation, Humanity and Inclusion, had integrated drones into its demining operations in Chad, it has emerged that another non-government organisation is also doing the same in Angola.

Founded in 1988 initially to deal with the landmine tragedy in Afghanistan, the Halo Trust has since ballooned into 25 other countries and territories, removing landmines and explosives in countries that include Mozambique (which was declared free of landmines in 2015), Libya, Yemen, Kosovo and Sri Lanka.

The entity gained worldwide fame when Princess Diana visited one of its sites in Angola in 1997, and this famous visit resulted in the signing of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty, calling for all countries to unite to rid the world of landmines.

Based in the UK, the Halo Trust say it has removed 100,000 landmines and explosives in Angola since 1994, but thousands more remain, and – according to the trust’s Head of Communications, Paul McCann – it will be many more years of hard work until the country is free of these destructive remnants of war.

Hence the roping in of drone technology to try and speed up the demining efforts.

“Essentially we put drones in the sky – and we’ve been doing that for a while now – to tell the extent of a minefield by using the drones to check the land-use around it,” McCann told the BBC. “But what we are now trialling on some very big minefields is a range of sensors that we can use with the drones to help us find the mines.

“So we are trialling thermal sensors, which basically pick up the temperature difference of the soil above the mine. “(The thermal sensors will return) pictures which show us exactly where the mines are because of the slightly cooler sand above them.

“We are also trialling Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) cameras, which send out thousands of laser pulses every second. They bounce off objects and create a kind of picture which we can then strip off the undergrowth. We can digitally take away the vegetation, and that allows us to see where the trenches and machine-gun posts were – all of which can point to the presence of the mine line that were looking for.”

The late Princess Diana’s visit to Angola brought worldwide attention to the tragedy of landmines. Picture: National Geographic

Halo says it started dabbling with drone technology way back in 2017, when it consulted GIS software supplier Esri to develop the use of UAVs in an inspection role, looking for above-ground explosive devices such as IEDs and fragmentation mines.

With landmines often giving off a different heat signal to that of the surrounding earth, the Halo team in Angola hopes that by deploying drones with thermal sensors, it will be able to quickly search hard to reach places and find potential landmines and other hazards.

SC Johnson helped to fund HALO’s first drone innovation project, and now an anonymous donor has stepped in to take the research to the next level.

McCanna went on; “The place where we are using drones on trial is a minefield to the east Cuito Cuanavale (in south east Angola). The minefield is 20 km long and has an estimated 50,000 mines, and it’s going to take several years to clear. Being able to understand precisely where the mine lines are will allow our manual clearance teams to go exactly to the point where they are buried and pick them up.

“(Previously) we spent a lot of time investigating signals which are bullet casings or screws or other kinds of metal contamination. So if we are able to tell distinct lines from the sky. that can really speed things up.

“We would still be integrating drones as survey techniques into our clearance procedures; what they would do is speed up our ability to find mines. Detecting, unearthing and destroying them will still rely on the human beings and other procedures we use now. There is a possibility that in some areas, we might use armoured mechanical equipment, but the key thing for drone technology to find the mines quicker.”

The demining drive in the area is being funded by the Angolan government, which may have realised the economic cost the presence of these mines has saddled on tourism. The government would love to contribute more to the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA-TFCA, galvanising the national parks of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe into one), but the reality of 153 minefields in its designated national parks have meant that wildlife cannot cross national borders into Angola yet, and no infrastructural development can be made on the ground unless these areas are cleared.

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