Min­ing in­no­va­tion

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - By Will Feuer

Meet the young en­gi­neer de­sign­ing ma­chines to clear the King­dom’s land­mines

Cam­bo­dian-Cana­dian Richard Yim has cre­ated mine-melt­ing ro­bots to lead the charge against hid­den ex­plo­sives in his na­tive coun­try. How­ever, as with many try­ing to in­no­vate in the field,

he will have to win over those on the front lines be­fore his ma­chines can make an im­pact

ON any given day, thou­sands of Cam­bo­dia’s dem­iners put on their pro­tec­tive gear and head out into forests and fields lit­tered with weapons buried decades ago, still set to ex­plode as soon as a per­son or ve­hi­cle presses down. They chop away at the vines and bushes that have grown over ter­rain on which one wrong step could be their last. Some use a ma­chine de­signed for clear­ing veg­e­ta­tion, oth­ers use hand tools. Once the land is cleared of brush, they can be­gin the painstak­ing process of lo­cat­ing and re­mov­ing bombs ly­ing just cen­time­tres be­neath the sur­face.

Creep­ing along with a metal de­tec­tor, they wait for a beep and leave a marker, know­ing that at least nine times out of ten it’s go­ing to be a harm­less metal item that poses no dan­ger to any­one. Af­ter comb­ing the whole area, they del­i­cately prod the area around each marker with a stick to check the size of the ob­ject found be­neath the ground, be­fore cau­tiously ex­ca­vat­ing any­thing that might be a land­mine. If it is, they re­move the det­o­na­tor and place the mine along with the rest of the day’s haul in a pile that will even­tu­ally be ex­ploded.

It is dan­ger­ous, painstak­ing work that de­serves great ap­plause but, amid rapid in­no­va­tions in other fields, there must be a bet­ter way to get it done – or at least that is the no­tion driv­ing Richard Yim.

An en­gi­neer­ing grad­u­ate from the Univer­sity of Waterloo in Canada, Yim’s first en­counter with land­mines came when he was eight years old and grow­ing up in Phnom Penh, when his aunt died af­ter step­ping on one of the fist-sized de­vices. A decade later, and half­way around the world in Canada, he started the Land­mine Boys, a com­pany re­branded this month as Dem­ine Ro­bot­ics, which is de­vel­op­ing tech­nol­ogy meant to help erad­i­cate land­mines with min­i­mal hu­man ex­po­sure to the ex­plo­sive de­vices.

“This is for the coun­try, this is for the world, this is for those coun­tries that still have land­mines and the thou­sands of peo­ple who suf­fer be­cause of land­mines and the mil­lions more who are re­stricted of land and de­nied the abil­ity to take part in agri­cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties be­cause of land­mines,” Yim said.

Draw­ing on his tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, Yim cre­ated two ma­chines to en­ter the dem­i­ning process in place of hu­mans. One is de­signed with arms that plunge un­der a mine to lift it out of the ground, un­cov­er­ing the det­o­na­tor for the sec­ond ma­chine, which pinches and dis­ables the trig­ger be­fore slic­ing into the mine and melt­ing the ex­plo­sive ma­te­rial in­side.

Yet apart from the many tech­ni­cal chal­lenges of his en­deav­our, Yim also joins a long list of well-in­ten­tioned in­no­va­tors who have found that car­ry­ing out field tests that win over key play­ers in the dem­i­ning sec­tor is the ul­ti­mate ob­sta­cle. Re­search at uni­ver­si­ties and tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies might seem con­vinc­ing on pa­per, but there are more ex­am­ples of fail­ures than suc­cesses when it comes to new in­ven­tions in the in­dus­try. There is no dis­agree­ment, how­ever, with the no­tion that the cur­rent mine clear­ance process in Cam­bo­dia can be im­proved.

When Cam­bo­dia signed the Ot­tawa Treaty in 1997, al­most eight Cam­bo­di­ans stepped on land­mines ev­ery day. That fig­ure has dropped dras­ti­cally; last year marked the first time that over­all ca­su­al­ties due to land­mines fell to less than 100. Yet Cam­bo­dia re­mains the sec­ond most mined coun­try in the world and has the high­est num­ber of land­mine vic­tims per capita.

The Ot­tawa Treaty com­mit­ted Cam­bo­dia to erad­i­cat­ing all of their land­mines by 2010. And though it has not hit that tar­get – the dead­line has now been pushed back to 2025 – the gov­ern­ment still needs to fol­low through on the agree­ment, said Paul Han­non, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Mines Ac­tion Canada.

“They have to solve the prob­lem and it’s not just be­cause they joined the Ot­tawa Treaty. They need to do this for the peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing in Cam­bo­dia, for their own cit­i­zens. It’s just not an ac­cept­able dan­ger, par­tic­u­larly when it is a solv­able prob­lem,” Han­non said.

A daunt­ing ques­tion mark con­tin­ues to loom over the ap­proach­ing dead­line of 2025 – even in the eyes of those most re­spon­si­ble for hit­ting the tar­get.

“Our com­mit­ment is to try to fin­ish by 2025,” said Tan Sara, unit man­ager for the

HOPE­FULLY, IN THE FU­TURE, TECH­NOL­OGY WILL RE­PLACE MOST OF OUR EF­FORTS MADE BY HU­MAN BE­INGS SO THAT

WE RE­DUCE AC­CI­DENTS”

LY TUCH Se­nior min­is­ter in charge of the Cam­bo­dian Mine Ac­tion Au­thor­ity

Cam­bo­dian Mine Ac­tion Au­thor­ity (CMAA) data­base. “But just my per­sonal idea, we can­not say that it will be com­pleted. We can­not see the mines un­der­ground. We are not gods. The mines can move some­times and the mines are al­ways in dif­fer­ent soils.”

The CMAA data­base is the na­tional au­thor­ity’s com­pi­la­tion of all avail­able data on mine ac­tion in Cam­bo­dia and serves as the ba­sis of in­for­ma­tion for pol­icy cre­ation. Ly Tuch, the se­nior min­is­ter in charge of the au­thor­ity, said that he was op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of dem­i­ning in­no­va­tion but also aware of its lim­i­ta­tions.

“Hope­fully in the fu­ture tech­nol­ogy will re­place most of our ef­forts made by hu­man be­ings so that we re­duce ac­ci­dents,” he said, adding that “some­times big ma­chines and equip­ment can­not per­form in these con­di­tions be­cause of the for­est, the trees, the moun­tains”.

Thus far, the gov­ern­ment has re­lied al­most en­tirely on for­eign fund­ing in ef­forts to clear mines and un­ex­ploded ord­nance (much of which was also pur­chased and planted with for­eign sup­port). And while NGOs in the sec­tor are in agree­ment that the gov­ern­ment is al­most sure to miss its tar­get of be­ing land­mine-free by 2025 with cur­rent rates of dem­i­ning, many re­main un­con­vinced that tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion is go­ing to be a game changer, or any help at all.

Ex­perts in the sec­tor say they are all too fa­mil­iar with in­ven­tors who skip steps in de­vel­op­ing their mod­els or fail to ef­fec­tively in­te­grate the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion in the coun­tries where they would be de­ployed. Some say that uni­ver­si­ties, rather than en­cour­ag­ing grad­ual im­prove­ments on ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy, en­cour­age en­gi­neers to pur­sue ideas that are both out­side the box and ut­terly im­prac­ti­cal.

“I think part of the drive of uni­ver­si­ties is to look to get the grant rather than to look to get the ac­tual ob­jec­tive on the ground, and they have to change their mo­ti­va­tion in a lot of ways,” said Lou McGrath, a prom­i­nent fig­ure in the mine ac­tion sec­tor who co-founded Mines Ad­vi­sory Group (MAG), one of the largest dem­i­ning NGOs in the world. McGrath now serves as CEO of Find A Bet­ter Way, an NGO that sup­ports prac­ti­cal in­no­va­tion in the sec­tor. “This isn’t about just fill­ing the time of a PhD stu­dent or what­ever,” he added.

Just last Oc­to­ber, Dar­ren Ansell, a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cen­tral Lan­cashire in the UK, ar­rived in Cam­bo­dia for the first time with a team of aca­demics. They brought with them drones that came equipped with high­tech in­frared cam­eras that could the­o­ret­i­cally spot ab­nor­mal­i­ties in the for­est cover in or­der to spot where mines were likely lo­cated.

“We don’t re­ally un­der­stand the chal­lenge out in Cam­bo­dia,” Ansell ad­mit­ted. “It was more of a fact-find­ing op­er­a­tion to find out whether drones could be used to help with mine clear­ance in any way… We’d never been to an ac­tive mine­field be­fore, but we were fa­mil­iar with how the drones op­er­ate.”

Ansell and his team re­turned to Cam­bo­dia last month to train dem­iners in how to op­er­ate their drones, but most ex­perts in the sec­tor have al­ready de­cided that drones are most use­ful to dem­i­ning in the way they are al­ready be­ing used – mapping ar­eas that will then be combed by hu­mans in or­der to pin­point the lo­ca­tion of mines.

Yim has pri­ori­tised prac­ti­cal­ity and inthe-field knowl­edge in the work of Dem­ine Ro­bot­ics, go­ing as far as per­son­ally en­rolling in a pro­gramme to be­come a cer­ti­fied dem­iner in Cam­bo­dia.

“We want to build some­thing prac­ti­cal that can be used as soon as pos­si­ble,”

he said. But some are doubt­ful that the ma­chines will work at all. One scep­tic of Yim’s ma­chines is Greg Crowther, South and South­east Asia Re­gional Di­rec­tor for MAG. Crowther has worked in mine clear­ance for decades and said he has seen count­less at­tempts at dras­tic in­no­va­tion in the in­dus­try – an over­whelm­ing num­ber of which have been re­sound­ing fail­ures.

“If you’re just in­no­vat­ing for the sake of in­no­vat­ing then it’s a waste of ev­ery­one’s time and re­sources,” he said. “What­ever you de­sign in a field in Canada or a dummy mine­field in Switzer­land, when it hits the ground in Cam­bo­dia, or An­gola, or South Su­dan it’s a dif­fer­ent story.”

Where these in­ven­tors of­ten cre­ate ‘magic’ de­vices, as Crowther de­scribed them, they rarely serve a func­tional pur­pose. This dis­crep­ancy has led him to draw a fine line be­tween in­no­va­tion and in­ven­tion.

“Ev­ery­body needs in­ven­tors, that’s im­por­tant. That’s not in­no­va­tion. In­no­va­tion is some­thing which builds on ex­ist­ing tech­niques and ex­ist­ing pro­cesses and you in­no­vate by im­prov­ing them,” he said.

Yim still sees his ma­chines as be­ing prac­ti­cal de­spite re­ly­ing on rad­i­cally new tech­nol­ogy. “We are look­ing to build upon a ba­sis of tech­nol­ogy… We would do ex­actly what hu­man dem­iners do ex­cept faster and it doesn’t ac­tu­ally put the dem­iner in dan­ger,” he said.

He claimed the es­ti­mated price of the ma­chines, at roughly $50,000 each, is com­pa­ra­ble to the cost of train­ing and main­tain­ing a team of mine-de­tect­ing dogs for one month, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from MAG. If the ma­chines func­tion as Yim hopes, they could ex­ca­vate a land­mine in five min­utes with an es­ti­mated 75% in­crease in ef­fi­ciency. But he still has to prove that they can work.

“You can cre­ate this tech­nol­ogy, but it might be in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive to use and may not be re­pairable, [or] you may have a fan­tas­tic new piece of equip­ment, but it may be re­ally hard to get to ru­ral Cam­bo­dia or the bor­der ar­eas that are much more re­mote, and if it breaks down how do you re­pair it,” said Han­non of Mines Ac­tion Canada, who has been work­ing with Yim since the Land­mine Boys launched.

“I and oth­ers need to have a healthy dose of scep­ti­cism as well as en­cour­ag­ing [Yim] be­cause it’s dan­ger­ous stuff we’re talk­ing about here and we need to make sure we get it right.”

This page: Lou McGrath, the founder of MAG, in­spects a site in south Le­banon in 2006 (top); a sign warns of land­mines next to a field in Bat­tam­bang. Op­po­site page: a MAG dem­iner tests the de­tec­tion ca­pa­bil­i­ties of a tool in a mine­field in Bat­tam­bang

A de­fused M18 Clay­more mine is dis­played near a mine­field in Bat­tam­bang province Left): Thearin Khin, a dem­iner for the Mine Ad­vi­sory Group (MAG), pre­pares land for clear­ance in Bat­tam­bang province (right)

A dem­iner uses a metal de­tec­tor to scan for mines or other metal ob­jects in a field in Bat­tam­bang

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