Drowning Landmines

Military technology: A new system finds 'em and floods 'em with water.

Illustration by Jason Lee

WATER GOES TO WAR
The remote-controlled ELADIN landmine detector uses H20 to search out and destroy buried explosives. High-pressure water jets pulse into the ground (1) and the resulting auditory feedback is analyzed by computer. If noise indicates a landmine, a robot arm floods the soil with water (2, below) and then sucks out the mud to expose the explosive (3). Typically, unearthed mines must be blown up, but here a tripod-mounted cutting head uses a ferocious stream of water to slice through the mine, rendering it harmless (4).
Illustration by Jason Lee

No one knows how many millions of landmines lie beneath the soil of more than 60 countries, but in Afghanistan alone, estimates run as high as 10 million. Mine-hunting teams are digging and poking in the earth for them, but progress is slow--and as many as 20,000 people are killed or maimed each year.

Technology for finding and detonating mines continues to be elusive. The gold standard in mine detection is still the dog's nose, but once a pooch has located a device, mine squads are faced with the dangerous work of detonating it. Higher-tech solutions have so far proved prohibitively expensive.

"The only way a de-mining device will be effective is if it is easy to use and affordable," says David Summers, director of University of Missouri-Rolla's Rock Mechanics and Explosive Research Center. Summers and his team are developing a remote-controlled vehicle that uses high-power water jets to detect and destroy mines. ELADIN (Eliminating Landmines by Aqueous Detection, Identification, and Neutralization) starts with an array of nozzles that shoot water into the ground at a pressure of up to 5,000 psi--more than 100 times as hard as your shower. The auditory feedback is fed into a computer mounted on the vehicle. A database analyzes the sound. When a mine is identified, a second robot arm uses a water jet to blast open a trench in the ground; it then sucks out the muddy dross to expose the explosive. A tripod-mounted cutting head is then placed over the trench, and water shoots from the nozzle at up to 5,000 psi as the cutter moves across the mine, slicing it in half. No risky detonation required.

The goal for the Department of Defense-sponsored program: to perfect the system and sell it for less than $10,000.

--Jenny Everett