• Andrew Heafitz, an instructor at the Edgerton Center, shows graduate student Olivia Leitermann, in protective gear, how to locate a mine during the IAP session 'MIT Design for Demining,' held Wednesday, Jan. 18.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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  • Students and instructors in MIT's Design for Demining course visit the U.S. Army's Demining Training Center in Missouri, in spring 2005. They are, from left, Helen Tsai, junior, mechanical engineering; Andrew Brooks, graduate student, EECS; Rosalind Takata, graduate student, mechanical engineering; instructors Andrew Heafitz and Benjamin Linder; and Aron Zingman, junior in mechanical engineering.

    Photo courtesy / Andrew Heafitz

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IAP: Class targets landmine removal

Andrew Heafitz, winner of the 2002 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Inventiveness, is challenging students to clean up the cruelest litter of war in two back-to-back IAP sessions on Wednesday, Jan. 18, in the Edgerton Center.

According to Heafitz, 50 million landmines -- weapons designed to maim rather than kill enemy soldiers -- lie buried in soil in 80 countries around the world, ready to detonate.

The IAP sessions, both titled "MIT Design for Demining," begin at noon and at 1 p.m. Each session will introduce humanitarian demining -- the process of detecting, removing and disposing of landmines -- and demonstrate inventions or improvements in hand tools, protective gear, safety equipment, educational graphics and teaching materials developed by past students in Heafitz' spring course on demining, SP.776.

"Ten thousand people a year are killed or maimed by anti-personnel landmines. Most are civilians; many are children. Landmines have been used to terrorize communities, to deny access to farming land and to restrict population movement," Heafitz said.

Heafitz (S.B. 1991, S.M. 2001) is a lecturer in the Edgerton Center. He co-teaches Design for Demining with Ben Linder (S.M. 1993, Ph.D. 1999). In true MIT tradition, Heafitz and Linder built their course on one they took as graduate students, carrying the engineering challenge forward -- the challenge to confront and resolve the world's toughest problems.

"Not only is the landmine problem one of intense emotion, it is a really tough one. It pushes the inventive process to the limits. This is extreme invention," Heafitz said.

Heafitz was inspired by David Levy (S.B., S.M. 1987, Ph.D. 1997), who taught a demining course eight years ago.

"I found demining to be an extremely challenging problem, and liked the fact that I was building things that could help people, and my work seemed to be making a difference," said Heafitz.

He said he has been especially pleased at the positive response in past years from demining professionals.

"Deminers are a very tough crowd. They don't need people inventing dumb widgets that are going to get them killed. We put the time into understanding the problems, made some real contributions and gained some respect from the demining community, which was very satisfying.

"I hope that by sharing that experience with students at MIT, I can make an impact in the world," he said.

MIT's Design for Demining students have already produced "several successful products" for use in demining efforts -- all of which must be conducted painstakingly, by hand, so as not to detonate the grisly devices, Heafitz noted.

For example, students in SP.776 developed a tool dubbed the "MIT profile probe" by the demining community, he said.

The probe "reduces the physical effort needed to search for mines by 30 percent or more, thus reducing fatigue and improving operator control. At last count, there were more than 5,000 MIT profile probes in use," Heafitz said.

According to Heafitz, MIT has the only student group that has actually gotten a demining product into widespread use in the field. MIT has also been recognized by demining professionals for making manual demining remarkably safer, he said.

The IAP presentation is an open house to explain what Heafitz' course, SP.776, will be like in the spring semester. It is a recruiting event, he noted.

"Anyone who is creative and enthusiastic about the problem can make a contribution. We will work on any idea that we think will have an impact, from hand tools for digging in hard ground, to mine-risk education to explosives detection," he said.

Heafitz and Linder expose students to the experience of demining before product design and development begin.

Course participants take a field trip to an Army base for training in the demining process before starting their projects. Last year, the group traveled to the Humanitarian Demining Training Center (HDTC) at Fort Leonardwood, Mo.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 25, 2006 (download PDF).

Topics: Innovation and Entrepreneurship (I&E), Mechanical engineering, Education, teaching, academics, Independent Activities Period, Global


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