Quest to eradicate land mines is proceeding at KU

Lawrence,Kansas (08-07-1999)

From Kansas City Star
By Jim Fisher

Inside Nichols Hall on the University of Kansas campus here, Tyson Malik occasionally clambers into a 750-square-foot concrete box filled with sand and buries objects at varying depths.

His cohort, Abhijit Apte, then activates weird-looking antennas along the box's edges. They track to and fro as they deliver signals into a computer.

The pair is looking for land mines -- pinpointing exactly what Malik has planted beneath the sand and the precise location.

Who says Kansas is a dull, unexciting place?

The land mines are inert, rendered harmless by their donor, the U.S. Army. But in shape, size and material they're the real McCoy, not at all dissimilar to the estimated 60 million to 110 million mines buried worldwide -- most often left in place after wars and rebellions.

The left-behind land mines kill or maim roughly 70 persons each day, or one every 20 minutes.

What's happening here and at several other university research sites in the country is the hardly noticed, federally funded program for the humanitarian removal of land mines from fields, pastures, roads and paths in 65 nations.

Land mines and Kansas have come together largely because of KU's Remote Sensing Laboratory, a pioneer operation that has participated in every space mission, developed new forms of ground-penetrating radar and figured out a way to see through glaciers.

The lab has spearheaded dozens of other applications of a scientific discipline -- radar -- that most people know makes airline flight safer, helped win the Battle of Britain and has something to do with the innards of their kitchen microwave ovens.

Oddly, the scourge of land mines has become a back-page issue (although a blip did occur in the war in Kosovo) since the death of the most conspicuous advocate of humanitarian mine removal, Princess Diana.

But work is going apace. Part of what Malik, a senior engineering student, and Apte, who's working on a graduate degree, do may end up in devices that can detect mines through a variety of sensors -- radar, acoustic, chemical, magnetic, even olfactory.

"We're putting more tools in our box," said James Stiles, assistant professor of engineering at the lab and a lead investigator in the quest to ferret out land mines.

The use of higher radar frequencies -- 100 times what they used to be -- has been coupled with the quantum leap in computer processing power, Stiles said. What was a dream just a decade ago is now showing up as images on monitoring screens.

"Back then we could send out the higher frequencies, but there was no way we could interpret what they said," Stiles said. "The computer has changed all that."

While the computer and increased radar frequencies are new, said Stiles, the time-tested method of de-mining has largely remained static through the years -- a metal detector seeking either the mine itself or some small metallic part inside it and a solitary figure with a scant life expectancy probing just beneath the soil with a rod or a knife.

The work is slow and dangerous. The cost of removal is high -- from $300 to $1,000 per mine.

"We're not that much different today than from World War II," said Stiles.

Needed, he said, are devices that can identify a mine quickly, at far less cost, and with a relatively low risk to people doing the work. Which, he added, is a pretty big package and one that nobody should expect to see overnight in the form of a one-size-fits-all, inexpensive detecting machine.

Some mines are metal, others plastic, said Stiles. The earth has magnetic anomalies that can frustrate even the most skillful scientific solutions. Some mines are big enough to blow a track off a tank; others will fit in a child's hand.

Institutions around the country, said Stiles, working through what is called the Multi-University Research Initiative, are investigating dozens of scenarios to end the bane of mines. They include such jawbreakers as nuclear quadrupole resonance and photoacoustic spectroscopy to training golden retrievers to sniff out mines or releasing genetically manipulated fruit flies that flock to the odor from the explosives.

KU, working with the University of Missouri at Columbia and Rolla, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the University of Texas at Arlington, is looking at something a little simpler -- the shape of mines.

"We know radar works when you take a field, plant some mines in it and then go over it," Stiles said. "You'll find the mines."

But what, asked Stiles, if the field has rocks in it, not an uncommon occurrence? And what if -- also not uncommon -- those rocks are roughly the same size as land mines?

The result is a false alarm. Digging up one mine and five rocks or more isn't exactly cost-effective.

The thrust here is to consider that land mines are cheap to produce, roughly $3 to $10 each. They are cheap because they are mass-produced, which means each, no matter its size, has a variety of exact measurements up and down, sideways and crossways.

Scientists call such dimensions the plane of vertical symmetry. The measurements themselves don't matter; what counts is the uniformity of the objects the radar is looking at.

Because no two rocks are exactly alike, said Stiles, the key is the ability to discern objects that fit the parameters of the plane of vertical symmetry -- which would be determined by the radar and the computer, with thousands of signals and computations.

"Of course you could defeat what we're doing by making land mines in all sorts of shapes," said Stiles.

But, he added, that would rule out most mass production and end the one overriding attraction of land mines -- their big bang for a small number of bucks.

And what about the solitary figure who has to remove the mine? Stiles said there also might be a simple answer for that -- water.

"Put enough pressure behind water and run it through a tiny nozzle, and you can cut through just about anything," he said. "One of our people thinks something like that may work when the mine is located.

"Turn the earth around the mine to goo, and you expose the mine for retrieval. Or use the water jet and just cut the mine in two."

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