You won’t find the “freedom to walk” inscribed in any UN conventions or national constitutions, but for 24-year-old Richard Yim, it’s one of the most important rights in the world.
Taken for granted in most places, such a freedom can be difficult to find in parts of northeast Cambodia. It’s a problem Richard saw first-hand growing up in Banteay Meanchey province, where he learned at a young age the disastrous effects that unexploded ordnance, or UXO, can have on civilians.
After moving to Canada when he was 13 years old and getting a degree in mechanical engineering, the dual Cambodian-Canadian citizen returned to the Kingdom last week for the local launch of his robotics company, called Demine Robotics, which he hopes will change the way UXO is removed.
“I want to push and give opportunity to everyone – regardless of where they were born – to have the freedom to walk just like any other places,” the new CEO said in a recent interview.
The team has been working on a demining robot in Canada for several years, but Demine Robotics marks the first official foray into the Cambodian market. The company has announced plans to bring its third robot prototype, named the Excavator, to the country for testing in May.
Demining in Cambodia is a slow, labour-intensive process. About 4,000 mine removal specialists work to clear large swathes of land, removing decades-old explosives with metal detectors and shovels.
“It should change,” Richard said of the current demining process. “We have travelled far, and we should not still send humans with shovels to dig the mines.”
In addition to safety concerns, the UXO removal process in Cambodia is painstaking work. A UN report from late 2016 showed Cambodia was far behind its demining goals, and was unlikely to meet a deadline of 2025 to remove all UXO from the country.
Given that the majority of funding for Cambodia’s demining operation comes from abroad, some experts have suggested international donors could start to withdraw funding if the pace of removal doesn’t accelerate.
That makes Demine Robotics’ goal – to create a safer, less labour-intensive demining method – an attractive option for the government. The company said it has not yet finalised a cost for its newest prototype.
Ly Thuch, the secretary-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority (CMAA), said he was proud to have a young Cambodian engineer building robots for his home country.
Thuch, the person in charge of coordinating Cambodia’s demining operations, also said the firm could become a lynchpin of the government’s demining strategy moving forward.
“I appreciate it, and I’m very happy for [Richard’s] achievements,” Thuch said. “We are ready to cooperate on anything with his team to have this humanitarian mission be a success.”
More than 100 deminers have been killed on the job in the last 25 years, according to Thuch, while over 60,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
The number of UXO victims has gone down in recent years – last March was the first month since records began to see zero injuries or fatalities from UXO – as the government has overseen the removal of more than 1 million anti-personnel mines and 2 million other explosives.
But Thuch acknowledged there was still a long way to go. The same UN report suggesting Cambodia was not on track for the 2025 deadline found that about half of the areas with UXO in the country had yet to be cleared.
If Demine Robotics’s tests in May go according to plan, the company could have a future in helping the government re-establish the freedom to walk on the country’s northeast.
“I am hoping that this machine will be the future of our demining system,” Thuch said.