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A beautiful answer to a hideous problem

When he was a boy in Afghanistan, Massoud Hassani and his brother made toys that would roll across the desert landscape pushed by the wind. Too often they’d lose those toys. Not in a neighbor’s yard, or a tree too tall to climb, but because the toys would blow into land that had been filled with one of the most horrible weapons of modern warfare: land mines, which  have killed or injured over a million people worldwide since 1975.

Now Hassani is back in Afghanistan, developing a grown-up version of one of his old toys, the Mine Kafon, as a way of safely detonating landmines for about 1/100th the cost of conventional mine-clearing methods.

Thankfully, landmine use has dropped rather significantly since a treaty barring their use was enacted about 15 years ago, but they’re still used in a number of places today. (Notably and unsurprisingly, the U.S. hasn’t signed the treaty.)  They can cost as little as $1 per mine to place, and are often dropped from the air, making precise mapping hard. Conventional means for finding and disarming the mines — designed to maim rather than kill, thus tying up other soldiers’ time and energy in caring for their wounded comrade — can run up to $1,000-1,500 per mine.

Hassani says his Mine Kafon costs about $50 to build and can detonate three or four mines in a single trip. That brings the cost to underdeveloped communities of getting rid of the mines to only about 10 times what it cost the armies to put them there in the first place. It’s certainly not a complete solution, but it’s an elegant one — and well within the reach of many of the communities most-affected by land mine placement. Sometimes simpler technology really is beautiful.

More on the general topic of landmines at the Landmines and Cluster Munitions Monitor.

Comments

  1. says

    I think a big problem with this is that with minefields you want to be precise, and a 99% cleared minefield is still as dangerous (if not more so) than a 1% cleared one.

    It’s a smart idea, but are they accurate enough to truly solve the problem?

  2. says

    Excellent question. Hassani talks about clearing paths through the fields rather than the entire field, but I’m betting people would be well-advised to check them for leftovers with a metal detector or something similar.

  3. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    What if there is no wind?

    Patience is a virtue. The wind will be there eventually.

    but I’m betting people would be well-advised to check them for leftovers with a metal detector or something similar.

    Many mines are mostly made of plastic these days. I would bet the only metal is encasing the detonator. Making metal detectors less useful than before.

  4. DBP says

    I would think that you could still push them a good ways out if there wasn’t any wind. Or just wait for wind…

    And I would think the point isn’t to entirely clear a minefield with these devices, it would be to decrease the danger of them. No one would think the field was cleared by the devices, but people who venture out into the fields would be less likely to be injured. Also, I would think it would reduce the cost of a complete clearing later on.

    But yeah, the idea isn’t super efficient or effective, but almost anything is better than just letting them sit there.

  5. mildlymagnificent says

    Me? I’d like to see some sort of dye or powder or paint dispensed from the centre as it travels so that the device leaves a track. After each run, some very, very careful person could follow the track for a few metres, with a more permanent marking material.

    If nothing else it would allow people to see where they need to use new starting points rather than repeat tracks others have already cleared, or where they could concentrate efforts to clear an area rather than just a path. It could also show where there is any areas of concentration of close or crossing tracks – indicating that the boundary of the minefield might be shifting away. Apart from any other consideration, that would give people confidence that they can deal with most of the problem – someone might even say at that point it would be worth the cost of professionals coming in to confirm clearance.

  6. says

    Matthewgill @1 beat me to the obvious question.

    But a word on the US: the US actually does quite a bit against landmines around the world, but the reason that we won’t sign the treaty is Korea. We mined the bejeebus out of the land just south of the DMZ in case the crazy people up north ever decide to pay a visit.

  7. says

    Actually, to answer Matthew’s questions, his lecture here (he talks last, around the 30 minute mark) he mentions that they have integrated GPS so you can use a computer to track the ‘clear’ areas, though nothing is 100%.

  8. says

    I like the giant pouched rats approach. The rats weigh too little to set off the landmines and can sniff them out. It costs a fraction to train them compared to the mine sniffing dogs and because of their small size and hardiness, they’re much cheaper to keep as well.

    Plus, anything that shows people how awesome rats are while also saving lives and preventing suffering is badass to the extreme.

  9. nohellbelowus says

    Well, it certainly sounds better than this wacky idea. I pity the poor engineer who had to work on that ill-fated project.

    At least our troops were spared the possibility of helplessly watching “The Mongoose” flip over in windy conditions while under enemy fire.

  10. says

    Reading up a bit on cluster munitions. Once again the USA hasn’t signed the treaty against them . They had to write in protections essentially so people could fight with the states and other non signatories and not be breaching the treaty should their allies use them.

  11. ckitching says

    I’m sure you’re all worried about the landmine manufacturers out there, but I’m certain they’re already working on ways to prevent their anti-personnel landmines from being detonated by this device. We can’t have innocent civilians escape being blown up by these things. Think of all the children whose futures wouldn’t be cut short by straying into a live minefield.

  12. chigau (無) says

    This isn’t a video game.
    Every mine exploded by a plastic toy is one that does not remove the legs of a human.

  13. says

    For the economically curious,

    I just did some currency converting and using an article on goat prices in saudi arabia from august and the price mentioned in the video. For the price of 1 goat you could get about 10 of these devices. So all the more reason to use a plastic tumbleweed rather then risking your goats.

  14. unclefrogy says

    besides being cheaper than goats and regardless how efficient it is of clearing all the land mines in a given area, which could be improved by doing more tan on pass, the things are beautiful in appearance and function.
    land mines are barbaric and cruel in the extreme and are buried all over the place.

    uncle frogy

  15. left0ver1under says

    Why be surprised that a country which engages in torture, illegal wars of aggression and war crimes would also refuse to sign a treaty against land mines?

    The list of who has and who refuses to sign the Ottawa Treaty is very telling. ALL of the biggest war profiteers…I mean, exporters of military equipment have refused to sign the agreement: the US, China, Russia, Israel, and several others.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_parties_to_the_Ottawa_Treaty#Non-signatory_states

    Of countries with the worst human rights records, the ones that have money refused to sign because they want to build and use or sell land mines for profit. The countries without money which commit war crimes probably signed because they can’t afford to buy or use them.

  16. chigau (無) says

    How is minesweeping with a helicopter superior to building a minesweeper out of stuff you have lying around?

  17. says

    @19

    “The countries without money which commit war crimes probably signed because they can’t afford to buy or use them.”

    Probably not. Land mines are quite cheap that’s one of their advantages.

  18. anuran says

    Some years back a Cambodian government Minister suggested a nicely economical way of clearing mines. His country had mines. The UK had mad cows. Let the mad cows find the mines

  19. timberwoof says

    “Let the mad cows find the mines” strikes me as a fairly efficient way to spread prions around into the dirt.

    I’m concerned about the ethics of using nonhuman animals to clear mines. I think if we’re going to do that, we should assign the task to the politicians and generals who ordered the deployment.

  20. says

    This isn’t a video game.

    I wonder if it would be possible to build some kind of internet-controllable armored robot capable of being maneuvered around to look for and detonate mines. Then crowd-source its operation – let people on the internet vie for the high score (with uploaded youtube video of “their” mines going off…) as mine-poppers, from a safe distance.

    It’s a very sad thing that these horrible weapons are still readily used. :( History should (and will) judge the US harshly for cluster munitions and agent orange.

  21. Lofty says

    I wonder if it would be possible to build some kind of internet-controllable armored robot capable of being maneuvered around to look for and detonate mines.

    Of course, but the beauty of this is that it goes where the wind takes it, no-one can accuse the controllers of deliberately missing bombs in critical locations. Liability etc. The wind blown thing also has the advantage of being locally made, their religious nutters can’t blame anyone else for its failings.

  22. khms says

    I think maybe another reason for the US not signing might be that they never were in a war that left explosives of any kind all over their country.

    Remember when WW II ended?

    Germany is still clearing bombs from back then – 67 years later. Not even land mines – bombs dropped from planes that, for some reason, never exploded. We find more all the time when building things. Sometimes they can be disarmed. Sometimes we can only blow them up in place. (And given that these bombs are slightly larger than land mines, blowing one up in the middle of a city is rather tricky.)

    http://google.de/search?q=fliegerbombe+gesprengt&tbm=isch
    http://google.de/search?tbm=nws&q=fliegerbombe

    And occasionally, children still find munition caches while playing, sometimes with predictable horrible results.

    http://google.de/search?q=kind+munition+weltkrieg+verletzt

    Gives people a rather different outlook on these kinds of things.

  23. says

    Bloody landmines, they remain deadly long after they the reason for their original issue is long forgotten. The random dangers of such weapons was brought home to me in Sudan during the 90‘s:

    I worked for some time on the banks of the Nile in Juba, South Sudan. I had been conducting a survey of a stretch of the river with an eye to install a turbine pump for supplying water to a medical clinic and the surrounding community. At the end of the day I went around for supper at friends in the MSF compound. Their nurses where very late in returning from work and we where concerned. It was only much later that they arrived, exhausted and miserable. They had been busy with an emergency operation in which they had to amputate the legs of a local fisherman after he had set off an antipersonnel mine. Aside from the sadness of this news, I realised with a shock that the accident occurred on exactly the same piece of riverbank that we had surveyed earlier that day. The area had been carefully demined – of that I had been assured – so what had happened?

    What had happened was a common occurrence. Mines are washed out of their original positions on the river banks by hard rain. They float downriver and end up randomly scattered along the banks of the Nile.

    These types of mines were manufactured by the Italian car manufacturer FIAT (via a subsidiary) and were famous for their low cost and the fact that they where designed to blow off the testicles of passing soldiers. Mainly they have succeeded in sowing pain and suffering, particularly amongst children. Long after the spats of the adults have been forgotten, they keep giving. How often are such disasters not prefigured by the words: “It seemed such a good idea at the time…”

  24. TheBlackCat says

    If the ball makes it to the other side, it looks like the center of the body and the screws holding the legs on would still be intact. So those parts might be re-usable, just get some more bamboo and some more feet and send it for another go.

  25. TheBlackCat says

    I think a major problem with the chain matrix is that it doesn’t appear that it detonates the mines, it just pulls them up. That means someone has to handle the mines and detonate them somewhere else in another way.

  26. says

    The Gambian pouch rats, mentioned briefly above, also have the added advantage of being smart and affectionate and lovely.

    I wonder if they giggle like ordinary American rats do?

  27. chrisdevries says

    I read about this a few weeks ago. Professional mine-clearers, those brave soldiers who take on this particularly onerous task, are skeptical about how useful the device is, considering that it is easily destroyed by mine explosions, and that it has a fairly narrow path of clearance, beyond which is still unexamined for mines. But every little bit helps, so I can see the design being improved upon and implemented by armies around the world. Certainly a neat idea; I hope someone finds a way to make it even more efficacious than it is now so that fewer peoples’ lives are put in danger doing the up close inspection and removal.

  28. says

    steve84

    What if there is no wind?

    You’ve probably never spent much time in the desert.
    It’s sort of a site specific design.
    He mentions in the video that there’s always wind in the areas he is thinking about.

    Definitely not for a thorough mine clearing, but that’s part of the point, thorough mine clearing is really expensive, too expensive for the people he is thinking about. Any mine set off is one more mine which won’t take out a person. He even mentions including a GPS so one can record the newly safe path, which I assume you would want to mark.

    Hopefully clearing a mine would only destroy the “legs” and you could replace them for multiple trips through the minefield.

  29. erick says

    I think we can all agree that this isn’t a complete solution, but if you don’t have a complete solution, then anything that reduces the number helps. This is cheap, easy, and local, so will certainly help where full and expensive solutions aren’t available.

    Speaking of animals for mine clearing… That’s already being done. I visited the Vimy Ridge memorial in France many years ago. For those that don’t know, Vimy Ridge was a battle in which the Canadians managed to overcome great odds against Germany after years of close and stagnant trench warfare. The ground was a mush of blood and mud, so a large portion of the munitions didn’t explode. Every once in a while, something turns up.

    Most of the memorial land is fenced off, with only a portion being cleared and accessible. The fenced off area is filled with sheep. It was explained to me that the sheep were there to keep the grass short and neat, and to exposes munitions that surface. And once in a while, there are flying lamb chops.

  30. madscientist says

    @chris #2: Unfortunately metal detectors have been of extremely limited use for detecting landmines for the past 45 or so years – if you want to die looking for landmines, using a metal detector is a good start. These demonic devices are not at all easy to find and dispose of. Antipersonnel mines may be plastic with ceramic shot and they may require multiple trigger events to set off. Yet other mines require a minimum pressure to trigger (these are typically antivehicular mines). There are an incredible number of variations on the design. A number of techniques are used to find the devices but minesweeping remains an extremely dangerous job.

  31. im says

    It occurs to me that one might have a whole bunch of these devices connnected by a chain, or maybe a cylindrical style.

  32. bradleybetts says

    That is soooooo… fucking… clever. Good man! :) People can be really fucking smart when we want to be.

  33. Compuholic says

    I would not trust those devices. There are way too many trigger mechanisms for mines for this to work. The only type of mines that this device will destroy are pressure triggered mines.

    Unfortunately there are lots of other mechanisms. Some mines require a pull instead of a push. Some are triggered by metal. Some mines require vibration, some even use sound.

    There are other methods who work more reliably (but still are not considered to be able to reliably clear a minefield). One way involves shooting a cord with explosives across the minefield and to then detonate the cord or there are tanks which can plow through minefields, either triggering the mines or ripping them apart.

    The problem with those methods: If the mine does not detonate and is only ripped apart: There are still chunks of explosives sitting around. And those can still inflict terrible injuries. Especially since many explosives tend to become less stable over time.

  34. TheBlackCat says

    @ im: “It occurs to me that one might have a whole bunch of these devices connnected by a chain, or maybe a cylindrical style.”

    That occurred to me as well, but I see problems with both approaches. I think the cylinder would have trouble going over rough terrain, making it hard for one ball to be higher than another. If the chain is long enough to avoid this problem, I think it would have the issue that it would have a good change of getting caught in an explosion (this was also the same reason I didn’t propose dragging a line to haul the ball back once it is immobile)

  35. TheBlackCat says

    @ Compuholic: Are those anti-personnel mines or anti-vehicle mines? Obviously this would be useless against mines designed to stop cars or tanks, but I don’t think those are the primary danger.

    I think the sorts of mines this is designed to destroy are those that would be a danger to people walking through the area, that is anti-personnel mines. It looks like the mechanism is reasonable close approximation of a human foot, so I would think that any mine that would be set off by peoples’ feet would also be triggered by this device. Is there a mechanism in common use that would be triggered by human feet but not this?

  36. Compuholic says

    @TheBlackCat:

    Well magnetic triggers are obviously intended for anti-tank mines. But there are anti-personnel mines that are triggered by pulling (using tripwires for example). Depending on the force needed to set them off this device could trigger them but I would not stake my life on it.

    It is certainly better than nothing and for farmers who need the fields to survive it may be a real option to make things a little safer but it certainly is not safe.

    I also do not know how heavy those balls are. There are anti-tank mines that are activated by pressure and can also be triggered by people. I have heard that they can set off by as little as 25-50kg. I am not sure that this device is heavy enough to set those off.

  37. halfspin says

    The U.S. hasn’t signed the anti-landmine treaty. That’s pretty clearly a bad thing because it encourages the further use of land mines. But ask yourself what makes land mines so much worse than other weapons of war, then check whether those reasons apply to the U.S.’s deployment of land mines in Korea’s DMZ. How would you prefer to defend South Korea from invasion? Or do you think that’s a worthwhile goal at all?