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To Clear Deadly Land Mines, Science Turns to Drones and Machine Learning

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A warm wind blows across an empty field on the outskirts of Pawnee, Okla. A small group of researchers struggle against the stiff wind to set up a pop-up tent for some shade. Nearby a young man opens a heavy Pelican case to reveal a pile of explosives.“These are inert,” he says, “but we’re lucky to be working at a range that has so many different kinds of munitions.”

The range is an explosive-ordnance-disposal field laboratory maintained by Oklahoma State University, and the researchers are led by Jasper Baur and Gabriel Steinberg, co-founders of the Demining Research Community, a nonprofit organization bridging academic research and humanitarian demining efforts. They have been in Oklahoma for two weeks, setting up grids of mines and munitions to train a drone-based, machine-learning-powered detection system to find and identify dangerous explosives so humans don’t have to.

The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor reports that at least 7,073 people were killed or injured by mines in 54 countries and areas in 2020. Many of the groups working to remove these old munitions are nonprofits with a fraction of the resources of the militaries that deployed the dangerous explosives.

Steinberg holds up a small plastic wing attached to a metal piece shaped like a spark plug.  “This is the PFM-1 ‘butterfly mine,’” he says. This antipersonnel mine was developed by the Soviet Union and deployed in its war in Afghanistan, where examples of the munition can be found to this day. There is evidence the same mines are currently being deployed by Russia in Ukraine.

The primary goal of mines and unexploded cluster munitions is to deny the use of roads and fields to enemy troops and vehicles. The problem is that mines and unexploded cluster munitions don’t “turn off” when a war ends. Instead they remain as a deadly hazard to civilians for decades, sometimes outlasting the very countries who deployed them.

There are many millions of active mines and munitions estimated to be scattered in dozens of countries. Baur says his and his colleagues’ goal is to make their drone-detection system available to demining organizations around the world to aid in efforts to make post conflict countries safe.

With countries continuing to deploy munitions in the war in Ukraine and elsewhere, the need for new tools will persist for some time.



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