"Bomblets" Problem in Laos Might Soon Be Solved, Conclude Scientists at MIT-led Session on Land Mines


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Elizabeth Thomson
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CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Existing but as yet untested technology might soon rid Laos of the millions of "bomblets" the size of tennis balls that currently plague citizens of that country, concluded scientists at a brainstorming session led by MIT physicists recently on the detection of land mines.

In other good news, the scientists found that existing technologies could also speed up the detection and disposal of land mines. These technologies--one of which was invented by the late MIT Professor James R. Melcher and colleagues--have the potential to increase demining operations over the next year or two by factors of 5 to 10 over current levels.

Similarly, the scientists found that sophisticated technologies now in development might improve the rate of demining operations a thousand-fold over the next five years, thereby reducing cost as they increase safety. They cautioned, however, that these latter technologies are promising, but must still be refined and tested.

These conclusions "injected a sense of optimism" into the six-day workshop held August 25-30, said Dr. Kosta Tsipis, director of the MIT Program in Science & Technology for International Security (PSTIS) and an organizer of the workshop with MIT Institute Professors Emeriti Herman Feshbach and Philip Morrison.

However, he noted that serious problems remain in land-mine detection. Key among them: funding for the implementation of existing technologies and for research into potential technologies for humanitarian demining.

At the workshop, 14 scientists known for their ingenuity, including one Nobel laureate, applied their talents to the detection of abandoned land mines. There are some 110 million of these mines around the world; they inflict about 100 deaths or injuries daily. The scientists, eight of whom were from MIT, were joined in their efforts by mine experts from the Department of Defense and representatives from humanitarian groups who are working in the field on the problem.

"The idea was to provide a forum for coming up with ideas that could speed up detection efforts and make them cheaper and safer," Dr. Tsipis said. "And we did come up with several very good, very simple ideas."

LAOTIAN BOMBLETS

One reason for the group's optimism was the realization that existing technology could solve the Laotian bomblets problem. This resulted from discussions between the scientists and Mr. Titus Peachey, a Mennonite who has spent many years working on the removal of abandoned explosives from Laos and other countries. Mr. Peachey explained that Laos' major problem is not land mines, but bomblets. Millions of these were dropped by the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War, but a good fraction did not explode. These unexploded bomblets are still a serious threat to villagers--and village children--who stumble across them everywhere.

The key technology to this end, developed by the late MIT Professor James R. Melcher and the group around him, involves a sensor called the Meandering Winding Magnetometer. This device, a low-cost enhanced inductive metal detector, is very effective at discriminating bomblets--and mines--from other metallic objects. This can save time and money in the hunt for abandoned explosives.

ELECTRONIC DOG

Workshop participants also identified other serious problems and suggested potential solutions. For example it is currently very difficult to detect plastic mines. Dogs, with their keen sense of smell, can do so, but they are inefficient to use on a large scale. Enter an electronic dog that could be considerably more efficient than the real thing. The equipment to devise such a dog currently exists, Dr. Tsipis said, but it must be adapted for land-mines work. The scientists also recommended that a comprehensive database be compiled on the technical characteristics of mines. Such a database would aid efforts in developing new technologies for demining. The current database on mines includes basic information such as types of mines and their general composition, "but it does not give enough physical or chemical characteristics to find them," Dr. Tsipis said. "We know very little about the more subtle characteristics of mines. For example, we do not know their acoustic or microwave-absorption properties."

FUNDING IS KEY

The countries plagued with mines do not have the funds to pay for either existing demining technologies or the research to perfect potentially useful technologies. As a result, developed nations must take the lead, said Dr. Tsipis. "And that will take political will, organization and, of course, money," he said.

"The countries that can afford to give funds have the impression that demining is slow, unsafe, and inefficient. So the publics of Europe, the United States, and similar places are not ready to help in this effort. We hope to show that the technology does exist to speed up demining efforts and to make them more efficient and safe."

He concluded: "We went into this workshop feeling that little could be done [toward the land-mines problem], but we came out feeling that a great deal can be done."

Other MIT participants were: Professor Thomas W. Eagar, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Professor Lee Grodzins of the Department of Physics; Nobel laureate Henry W. Kendall, J. A. Stratton Professor of Physics; John G. King, Francis Friedman Professor of Physics; and Thomas B. Sheridan, Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Elliza McGrand, PSTIS administrative assistant, was also present.

Participants also came from the following institutions: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Thermedics Detection, Inc., the Naval Research Laboratory, IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, DARPA, Harvard University, the Gordon Research Conference Center, the National Ground Intelligence Center (DOD), Humane Demining Technologies (the US Army), the Mennonite Central Committee, and Operation USA.

The workshop was held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Ploughshares Fund. A full report on the meeting will be published in 1996 by the Program in Science & Technology for International Security at MIT.


Topics: Security studies and military, Global

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