Drones making demining safe in Chad

We know we vowed right from the off that we would never write about war drones here; reason being we are against war and we believe there are far too many useful ways to use drone technology, which have no relationship at all to war.

But today we make an exception – because if you are to read about drone technology and its application to war and conflict, then it has to be the way Cote d’Ivoire Flying Labs have been using them in Chad – helping in the removal of landmines to clear land in the Borkou and Ennedi West regions of the country for settlement and use by local communities.

Indeed, the Ivorian custodian of WeRobotics’ Flying Labs network was contacted in 2018 by international NGO Humanity and Inclusion (HI; formerly known as Handicap International), which – in partnership with robotic services company Mobility Robotics had started experimenting with new technology in their quest to escalate the removal of landmines in the affected areas of Chad.

Outraged by the injustice faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, HI aspires to a world of solidarity and inclusion, enriched by diversity, where everyone can live in dignity. They aim to achieve this through making a positive impact in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster; working alongside people with disabilities and vulnerable populations, responding to their essential needs, improving their living conditions and promoting respect for their dignity and fundamental rights.

The organisation’s work in 2019 alone touched nearly 3million lives worldwide.

In Chad, HI was drawn by the mines that had been planted during a conflict in the 1980s; rendering some areas in the North too dangerous to tread in, let alone live permanently.  

“In Northern Chad, we faced to a dire situation: many camels had been killed by landmines, suggesting a strong infestation of the region,” said Kheira Djouhri, Innovation Project Manager at HI. “We flew a drone to collect information on the circumstances of the accidents in order to understand how as many camels could have been killed. The mounted camera on the drone was powerful enough to allow us to clearly see the presence of the mines.

“With this particular type of mine, only one camel has to activate it, and projectiles are propelled to a radius up to 100 metres. We understood then why a whole herd had been hit. Being informed of the presence of this type of mine was crucial for our operations, as it warned us to adapt our security measures.”

They then launched Odyssey 2025 in 2018, a large mine clearance project conducted in Northern Chad, whose aim was to experiment with the use of new technologies in order to accelerate the process of identifying mined areas and improve the efficiency of demining operations while facilitating the process of making land available to local populations.

Getting ready for a day in the desert.

One of these new technologies was drones.

“It is particularly in the context of this advanced research that Côte d’Ivoire Flying Labs intervened to provide technical expertise for the achievement of the objectives of this project which could ultimately revolutionize demining operations,” the start-up said. “The objective of the mission was to determine the depths of burial of mines previously located by a thermal camera fixed on a drone.

“While the drone team worked at night to identify the presence of mines buried underground, a demining team was deployed during the day in the same area to manually check the depths of burial of these mines.

“By linking drone data and demining, it was possible to identify some of the operational limitations of the thermal camera. Of the mines located by the drone, fourteen could be checked by deminers (eleven anti-personnel mines and three anti-tank mines). The deepest of them was buried at 5.5 centimetres.”

Between September 2018 and March 2020, HI, Mobility Robotics and Cote d’Ivoire Flying Labs tested the contribution of drones to demining operations as part of the Odyssey 2025 project.

“We can now say that we are locating mines buried underground in the desert using drones equipped with infrared cameras,” said Emmanuel Sauvage, Director of Armed Violence Reduction at HI. “It’s an extraordinary thing. We have the capacity to do investigations into the presence of explosive devices by covering an area in a few minutes where it is needed weeks with classic methods. Mastery of these new methods will speed up operations demining and ultimately the release of land to populations.”

The demining exercise was done in phases, the first of which involved surveys of the areas to be cleaned up. It was during the first phase that drones would be called in, armed with powerful thermal imaging cameras to identify the locations of mines, and also help determine what type of explosives had been planted.

“The use of sophisticated cameras and infrared sensors mounted on drones (which themselves did not need to be as elaborate as the image capturing equipment) made it possible to locate the position of hundreds of mines buried in the land. This discovery is a world first and can significantly change the methods employed in the humanitarian demining sector.”

The drones also helped the deminers on the ground with other useful information, like a feel of the local topography, which was fundamental to the planning process for when the manpower was finally deployed into the field. Besides, they gave clues to areas that were likely contaminated – a charred military vehicle could be a warning that the area surrounding it was rigged with landmines.

“The use of drones to assist these investigations brings new visual information that decreases the associated costs involved with the direct deployment of deminers from the get go. It also decreases considerably the number of days needed to clear an area.”

Not to mention safety for the humans in the field too.

“The use of drones equipped with sensors of all kinds allows deminers to obtain aerial images and cartography of suspicious areas, without having to set foot in them. The information provided by the drone allows deminers to better plan their demining operations and better prepare their deployment in the field.”

The second phase was the demining proper, done during the day and where deminers moved very cautiously, metre by metre, to places where the landmines had been detected and clear them.

It is the kind of war-related application for drone technology that we can all get behind; and we hope it marks a landmark step in accelerating the removal of landmines all over the world; HI said it was going to try the Chad experiment to other areas where it operates.

Let’s see how it progresses.

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