Scientists seek solutions to land mine problem


Persistent efforts by two MIT scientists to expose the "lingering scourge" of undetonated land mines and to publicize available demining technology were rewarded this fall when the US State Department announced that the United States would lead an initiative to eradicate land mines by 2010.

The Clinton administration named an ambassador for Global Humanitarian Demining to coordinate the initiative on October 31, and the government will increase funding for demining from $68 million to $77 million in fiscal 1998. (Humantiarian demining efforts receive $18 million of these funds; the rest of the mopney goes to countermine operations.)

According to United Nations estimates, more than 100 million land mines lie buried around the world, causing 10,000 deaths and twice that many injuries annually.

The two MIT scientists dedicated to complete demining are Kosta Tsipis, director of the Program in Science and Technology for International Security (PSTIS), and Philip Morrison, Institute Professor emeritus. Professor Morrison is a distinguished theoretical astrophysicist. Both men are well-known advocates of nuclear and conventional arms reduction.

"The millions of land mines buried around the globe represent what is fundamentally a health issue similar to smallpox, and it could be addressed very much as smallpox was. An effective response requires measurement, research and development, production and field support," Professor Tsipis said. "But unlike smallpox [eradication], humanitarian demining has not yet been engaged in a coherent and effective way."

Professors Morrison's and Tsipis's humanitarian demining activities took formal shape in a number of ways beginning last year. In August 1996, they and Institute Professor Emeritus Herman Feshbach organized a six-day workshop on the detection of land mines. Fourteen scientists (including eight from MIT), mine experts from the Department of Defense and representatives from humanitarian groups met at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge to collaborate on the problem of land mine detection and eradication.

Their conclusions brought Professor Tsipis a "sense of optimism," he said following the conference, because existing technologies -- including one, the Meandering Winding Magnetometer, invented by the late MIT Professor James R. Melcher and colleagues -- have the potential to increase both the rate and effectiveness of humanitarian demining efforts throughout the world's former battlefields.

MAKING A CASE IN PRINT

On October 1, the Washington Post published a lengthy op-ed article by Professors Morrison and Tsipis ("Speeding a Slow Process"), encouraging President Clinton and Vice President Gore to "support a large-scale [demining] effort."

Later that month, the issue of humanitarian demining received worldwide media attention when the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Jody Williams, a Vermont activist and cordinator of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Efforts by the late Princess Diana also publicized the continuing threat of undetonated mines around the world.

Also in October, Professors Tsipis and Morrison co-authored an article in Technology Review in which they demonstrated the need for complete demining; summarized existing technologies, both effective and not; and offered suggestions as to what measures tktktk might take to both hurry and support global removal of this "grimly lethal pollution."

The most common demining technique used today is the "creep and probe" method, a low-tech, high-risk, labor-intensive approach in which two people traverse a mined field with slow, cautious steps. The first person, once alerted by the slow sweep of his metal detector, marks the spot where his partner will drop to the ground, delicately probing for whatever metallic object is buried below.

Inefficient (battlefields are loaded with everything from tin cans to bombs) and dangerous (a misstep can maim or kill), the "cruel calculus," as the authors call it, of the creep-and-probe method makes complete demining virtually impossible.

But last year's conference is this year's hope for humanitarian demining, thanks to another MIT scientist, the late Professor Melcher who, with his colleagues, invented the Meandering Winding Magnetometer (MWM), a device which can determine the rough shape, size, depth and type of material in a buried metal object.

The MWM is an improvement on the conventional metal detector in that an experienced deminer can use it to discern whether the buried object is a mine or just battle clutter. Thus, the time and labor spent probing the earth -- not to mention the false-alarm rate -- can be significantly reduced.

"We have planned the demining effort in two phases," said Professor Tsipis. "The first is to improve the efficiency of labor-intensive demining. The second, which is about five years off, is to establish high-tech methods."

TECHNOLOGY LENDS A HAND

Several approaches are now being researched at MIT. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE) is looking into ways of characterizing the materials in land mines, essential to new demining techniques because contemporary land mines are often made of plastic rather than metal.

Also, the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science is developing a sensor that recognizes various "signatures" of land mines. Both research projects are conceptually related to the MWM, said Dr. Tsipis.

Dr. Neil Goldfine, a research affiliate at the Laboratory for Electronic and Electromagnetic Systems and a member of the MIT Humanitarian Demining Project, is president and founder of JENTEK Sensors, an industrial partner with MIT.

"We are excited about the possibility of both magnetic and electrical field technologies. Preliminary evidence indicates a great deal of promise, but we have much work left to do," said Dr. Goldfine. "The funding from the US Army to develop these technologies further is absolutely critical to providing a near-term solution."

MIT'S DEMINING PROJECT

Professor Tsipis is also head of MIT's Humanitarian Demining Project, funded by the US Department of Defense in June 1997.

Other MIT faculty working in the Humanitarian Demining Project are Professor Thomas W. Eagar, head of DMSE; Professor Robert M. Rose of DMSE; Professor Markus Zahn of electrical engineering and computer science, director of the VI-A Internship Program; and Thomas B. Sheridan, Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Two aspects of the MIT project involve research into new demining technologies mentioned above. The third aspect of the project is a new design course, Humanitarian De-mining, which is offered by the Department of Mechanical Engineering and will be taught next term by David H. Levy (PhD '97).

The spring course will guide students in "exploring and understanding the problem of humanitarian de-mining, then inventing a solution," said Dr. Levy. "We're trying to map together a subset of the overall problem, to find a meaningful advance that can be made."

On January 13, the Technology and Culture Forum will host a half-day seminar on demining, coordinated by Episcopal Chaplain Jane Gould. The session is free and open to the public.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 17, 1997.


Topics: Security studies and military, National relations and service

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