Land Mine Detection Captures Attention Of ORNL, DOE Labs

June 23, 1997

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., June 23, 1997 -- Land mine detection and demining efforts of the Department of Defense (DOD) are going high-tech with the assistance of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and nine other Department of Energy (DOE) laboratories.

In addition to countermine and humanitarian demining, the military and international community is faced with the challenge of disposing of millions of unexploded mines and other explosive devices, called ordnance, at military ranges and elsewhere. DOE, which has expertise in a number of explosives detection technologies, has formed an unexploded ordnance/mine task force that has been working closely with DOD for the last several months.

In a recent report to Congress, Maj. Gen. Roy E. Beachamp of the U.S. Army notes that DOD is "leveraging technology base programs at DOE and other agencies." He points to DOD's interaction with DOE laboratories and holds it up as a "model for future interagency cooperation."

The 100 million mines in former combat zones pose significant hazards to American military personnel and to civilians around the world. Mine fields in Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait and many other countries kill or maim an estimated 25,000 civilians -- many of them children -- annually. In addition, the mines are preventing development of natural resources and land that could be used for agriculture and industry.

"Because mines are relatively inexpensive and effective for military missions, they have been attractive to the worldwide military community," said Dick Davis of ORNL's Defense Programs Office. "The use of mines is a growing problem as more mines are put in the ground faster than they can be removed each year."

To combat the problem, DOE laboratory directors are encouraging their staffs to understand the requirements of DOD and other government agencies and more actively direct their research to help solve this international problem. ORNL Director Alvin W. Trivelpiece, Sandia National Laboratories Director Paul Robinson and other lab directors are spearheading a DOE laboratory initiative in this area.

"The international threat of residual mine fields is a major problem for combat troops and for thousands of civilians around the world," Trivelpiece said. "ORNL and other DOE laboratories have the talented people and the scientific and technical resources to help solve this problem."

Unlike the simple pressure metallic land mines of World War II and prior wars, today's mines are often high-tech smart mines designed to combat tanks, helicopters or soldiers. Many have little or no metallic content, so conventional mine detection techniques, which rely on locating metallic objects, are less effective than in the past.

Several techniques being developed at ORNL and other national laboratories could play a major role in mine detection methods used by the U.S. military and in humanitarian demining efforts. This task involves detecting and removing mines from former combat zones, rendering the land usable.

Requirements for detecting and demining active battlefields and postwar humanitarian demining are different in some important aspects, Davis said. Time, which is so vital to military countermine operations, is less critical in humanitarian demining efforts. Furthermore, detection methods for the military must be 80 percent to 90 percent effective in combat conditions for all types of terrain, vegetation and weather conditions. While soldiers are trained to operate in and around mine fields that have not been completely cleared, humanitarian demining must achieve as close as possible to 100 percent clearing efficiency so civilians can reoccupy the land and resume normal lives in a safe environment.

Methods of detection are varied and include magnetometers, ground penetrating radar, visual imaging radar, acoustic image sensing and other techniques. Some of the technologies are useful for both humanitarian and detection applications, said Davis, who noted that researchers are investigating a number of approaches because no one method is expected to work under all conditions.

"Recently, there has been growing interest in methods that potentially could detect the chemical signature coming from the mine casing or the explosive material contained in the mine," Davis said. "Methods such as mass spectrometry, microcantilever sensors, or genetically engineered bacteria might be helpful here. This would be especially important for detecting small plastic mines, which are often used in combat and terrorist activities."

From a technological standpoint, some of these techniques are closer to being adopted for use than others, Davis said, noting that magnetometers, electromagnetic and imaging methods are the most advanced. Chemical and biological methods, which involve naturally occurring or genetically engineered bacteria that feed on specific explosive compounds and trigger production of fluorescent protein, are less developed but hold promise for some applications. The fluorescent hot spots generated by the bacteria are visible using an ultraviolet lamp at night.

Helping make the mine detection techniques effective are several enabling technologies, including robotics and telerobotics; battery technology; and computer information networking.

These systems offer advanced computing, high-level reasoning, decision-making, vision systems and data compression -- all vital to mine detection and surveillance and tele-operated demining operations. Computer graphics and computer modeling also provide the visual information vital to demining efforts.

ORNL's Trivelpiece and other lab directors believe the diverse capabilities of the laboratories should be more involved in helping solve this international problem.

"Through teaming among DOE laboratories as well as with other government agencies, industry and universities, DOE can offer incredible capability, experience and expertise," Trivelpiece said. "As a group, we offer a comprehensive and extensive technology package that will complement the Department of Defense's in-house mine detection programs.

"This represents an opportunity to show the contributions DOE laboratories can make toward solving a problem of national and international importance."

The multi-laboratory effort has also drawn praise from Carl Stiner, a retired four-star general and mine warfare expert, who said, "This DOE laboratory initiative wisely brings together all the laboratories to apply all their capacities in trying to find the best technological solutions."

Ben Redmond, who retired from the Marine Corps and is an expert in the detection of mines and unexploded ordnance, is also working with the laboratories.

"This is a model of how the labs can work together to solve problems of great significance," said Redmond, who noted that many countries with mine problems have money but not the technology to eradicate the situation.

Redmond and Stiner believe the United States can be the technological leader in the effort to eliminate the worldwide threat from mines and unexploded ordnance.

"Through this work, we can assist friends around the world," Stiner said. "Nations turn to the U.S. for technology and technical assistance. We're the symbol of hope."

At ORNL, the work is coordinated by the Defense Programs Office and involves several divisions and programs.

Other participating laboratories are Argonne National Laboratory, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Savannah River Technology Center.

ORNL, one of DOE's multiprogram research facilities, is managed by Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation.

(photo available upon request)


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