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From Financial Times 17th December 1998

 Science & Technology  

Detecting the undetectable

Justine Newsome on a combination of ultrasound and electromagnetics that helps detect landmines

Last December, 121 countries signed the Ottawa agreement banning anti-personnel landmines.  Scientists worldwide are working on a range of technologies to detect the many different types of mines that have been deployed.

In Ecuador, two European scientists have spent the past eight months working on a detection method that combines electromagnetics and ultrasound.

The sophisticated mines on the market are "in theory detectable but not in practice" with current methods, says Alfred Kolb, a German military engineer who used to work for Nasa.  Tiny metal parts can be shrouded in impenetrable plastic and "expensive mines are so well encapsulated that so-called sniffers can't smell anything," he says.

Together with Jesus Vila, a Spanish physicist, Mr Kolb has been using electromagnetic waves to detect faults in conductivity.  In laboratory experiments to detect objects such as Italian and Russian mines buried in sand, the pair found that each object gave a unique conductivity reading at certain frequencies.  There was a marked difference at a specific frequency, for instance, between an empty bottle and one filled with water.

Ultrasonic waves provide "confirmation" data.  "Whenever human life is at risk, a protection system is needed to reduce risk so far as is technologically possible," Mr Kolb says.

Once software to interpret the datastream from readings has been developed, the kit together with a specially adapted computer, battery pack and electrodes for reading will fit into a rucksack, the basic gear for "intensive demining groups with minimal personal risk".

A rucksack kit could be used to survey one or two square kilometres at a time, depending on the terrain, the scientists predict.  The same equipment on a larger scale with a wider range could fit in a lorry.

After investing $38,000 (£22,900) in equipment, the scientists need $300,000 over the next eight months to take their research beyond the laboratory, says John Fleming, manager of Quito-based San Lucas Investments, which has been helping them raise funds.  The final stage will be to find a company to design the software and adapt a computer.

They will not be short of a testing ground.  Ecuador has signed a peace agreement ending a 56-year border conflict with Peru in October and up to 150,000 mines must be cleared from the border area.

San Lucas Investments, Ecuador:

Tel:  (593 2) 2986 597 / 2986 598.  Fax: (593 2) 2986 599.

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