You may remember the famous image of Princess Dianna walking through a live landmine site in Angola in 1997. Her efforts drew international attention to the plight of communities recovering from war.
The United Nations (UN) subsequently announced the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty to eradicate and stop their use and production. The UN International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action is now on 4 April.
But landmines remain a global humanitarian issue. More than 100 million active landmines exist worldwide. Anti-personnel mines kill or maim about 6500 people each year. Most are civilian casualties, and more than half are children.
Enduring legacy of war
The detection and destruction of landmines is critical for communities to safely recover and thrive after conflict.
These enduring explosive remnants of war inhibit freedom of movement. They can limit access to food, water, schools, hospitals, and shelter, which jeopardises the safe recovery and return of civilian populations.
Slow and steady
Clearing minefields is slow, laborious, and hazardous work. Traditional detection methods use metal detectors and ground penetrating radar. But even used in combination these methods are far from perfect. For instance, only one in 30 detections results in a positive landmine find.
Metal detectors struggle to distinguish between metal signals from a landmine and other inert objects, like shrapnel and other discarded metallic rubbish. The only way to determine the source is to excavate the item.
As a result, it takes time to carefully examine and treat each signal as a potential explosive threat. It is estimated about 117,000 mines are cleared each year. While this is a mighty result, millions more await detection and clearance.
Having a more accurate method of detection would speed up the rates of landmine clearance. And make it safer for people undertaking demining work and the communities they work in.
Technology to detect explosives
We developed a new technology that can detect the molecular signature of explosives used in landmines.
The new landmine detector is based on magnetic resonance (MR) technologies we originally developed for bulk ore sorting in the mining sector. It is similar to MRI technologies used in medical imaging.
The detector uses radio frequency pulses and measures how the radio waves interact with atoms and molecules. The returning radio signal to the detector corresponds to a distinctive molecular signature from the landmine explosive. This approach makes it much more reliable.
New Australian company helping global humanitarian demining
We joined with venture builder RFC Ambrian to establish a new Aussie company, MRead, to bring this more reliable and cost-effective landmine detection method to landmine-affected countries globally.
MRead is developing a hand-held MR device, similar to a metal detector. The heightened accuracy of these devices means false signals are less likely detected, a problem that slowed down the metal detection and clearance process.
Additionally, MRead plans to work with demining charities around the world to deploy this technology in the field.
One of their first partners is the HALO Trust (Hazardous Area Life-support Organization), an NGO that carries out mine clearance activities around the world. The first hand-held detectors with the HALO Trust are expected to be deployed to landmine-affected regions in Southeast Asia in 2024.