October 23, 2007

Cornellians Design Unmanned Vehicle to Identify Landmines

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Correction appended. See below.
Recognizing the deadly humanitarian crisis posed by landmines throughout the world — indiscriminately killing upwards of 20,000 people every year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) — Cornell engineering students are developing a new machine to aid in mine removal projects around the globe.
Starting last fall, a team of students in the College of Engineering began designing an autonomous robotic vehicle — the Cornell Mines­weeper — that can detect and mark underground landmines. Their vision for the vehicle is to create an inexpensive, entirely unmanned detector that can independently scour dangerous areas, identifying mines that often kill mine removal personnel. This would effectively reduce unnecessary casualties in the removal process.
“The concept of removing the man from the mine is good … the deminer is frequently, unfortunately, the subject of an accident,” said Noel Mulliner, technology coordinator for the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
The team, led by project leader Vikas Reddy ’08, came together to undertake the design challenge because of shared interests in finding a solution to the tragic landmine dilemma.
“These were laid years ago to kill soldiers; now they’re killing innocent civilians,” Reddy said.
Often the remnants of conflicts long since resolved, active landmines litter much of the world in more than 75 countries according to the ICBL. This problem poses a threat to people by killing and maiming them, to economies by putting good land out of commission and to environments by degrading entire ecosystems through pollution and wildlife mortalities.
Combating these problems has been a difficult task for workers trying to remove landmines in affected regions. Different approaches vary in effectiveness, but also vary widely in cost.
“There are a few techniques out there, but they aren’t practical,” Reddy said.
According to Reddy, two methods are often used for mine removal. One of the more proven techniques being used in some places is to detonate landmines by using the brute force of bulldozers. This strategy has the downfall of being expensive and risky to the machine. Another, more widely used practice is to employ people to search areas by foot with a metal detector. This is time consuming and usually unreliable.
Many new technologies, including the Cornell Minesweeper, are being developed to make demining efforts more efficient, but according to Mulliner, the new idea closest to reality is the combined use of ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors.
Reddy admits that projections for a final product are nowhere near complete, but he said that team members are working steadily towards developing a working model, many of them putting in 15 hours per week.
“It’s a very tough research topic. There are a lot of unknowns right now,” Reddy said.
Mulliner pointed out a number of difficulties the design team faces including the challenge of designing a vehicle suited for rugged terrains prominent where the device will be deployed and the daunting task of creating an accurate mine detection device.
“You have to do the tests. You have to work out — is it as reliable as a man?” he said.
Prof. Ephrahim Garcia, mechanical and aerospace engineering and the project advisor, agreed with this sentiment.
He said, “The real bottom line is can we detect mines well enough that we’ll walk over those fields after the robot goes through?”
Still in its infancy, the Cornell Minesweeper has a long way to go before becoming an effective autonomous landmine detector, but some functions of the vehicle are starting to be realized said Reddy.
The team plans to have a robotic prototype capable of autonomous mobility — requiring only coordinate inputs to get from one point to another — by November. Working off of this platform, the team will make any necessary adjustments to ready the vehicle for their first competition at the end of May — the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition — where they will compete for $30,000.
Giving his vote of confidence for the team’s project, Garcia said, “I like this one because it’s doable … I really think they’re on track.”
Correction appended: “’Minesweeper’ to Aid Soldiers” incorrectly stated that the small autonomous landmine detection vehicles will be used in combat areas. The Cornell Minesweeper team is focusing on building vehicles for use in non-combat areas to discover landmines left over from age-old conflicts that continue to threaten civilians, aid workers and soldiers in times of peace. The Sun regrets the error.