DEMINERS, laboriously clearing Cambodia's landmines one by one, are eyeing up new
methods - animal and mechanical - to speed up their mammoth task.
The future of Cambodian demining may include Khmer dogs sniffing out mines, modified
tractors shearing away vegetation, million-dollar machines churning up the ground
- and even a simple device to whack a mine with a piece of wood.
In Cambodia and around the world, brainpower and big money is being spent on new
ways to hasten the slow work of manual demining.
Less than five years into the demining of Cambodia, about 10 square kilometers of
mined land a year are being cleared.
At that rate, statistically it would take 300 years to rid Cambodia of all its mines.
Theoretically, those which aren't stepped or driven on will have a better chance
of "dying" of old age - degenerating after about 75 years in the ground
- than at the hands of deminers.
"This process cannot meet Cambodia's emergency requirements. We need to move
faster," says Phan Sothy, chief of staff of the Cambodian Mine Action Center
In one of a series of trials of new techniques, dogs will soon join human deminers
in Cambodia. Eight explosive-sniffing dogs trained by the Swedish military will be
sent here, after four Cambodian deminers travel to Sweden for training.
The trial, to be finalized by CMAC director Sam Sotha in Sweden this month, follows
a visit by CMAC staff to observe German Shepherd dogs at work in Mozambique's minefields.
Ultimately, Cambodian dogs may be used, says Phan Sothy. Unsure of whether the Khmer
variety will meet the grade, he says a Swedish dog expert will come here to scour
for suitable canine talent.
The chief benefit of dogs is that unlike metal detectors - a deminer's key tool -
they hone in on mines and bombs and are not distracted by scrap metal in the ground.
While deminers would welcome not having to waste time digging up harmless pieces
of metal identified by their detectors, some are skeptical about the reliability
"A detector is designed to show when it's going faulty, when its batteries are
running low and so on. A dog will not tell you when its concentration level is low,"
says Tim Porter, projector coordinator of the demining NGO the Halo Trust.
"But I wish them luck," he says of CMAC's dog trial. "They certainly
can help to reduce the time spent on reducing minefield boundaries."
Mine-searching dogs sniff out the residue of vapors from explosives. The longer mines
have been the ground, the greater their scent in nearby soil.
The dogs, moving down identified lanes in a minefield, are trained to drop prone
to the ground at a whiff of explosives - a mine or bomb, theoretically, will lie
a foot or two ahead of them.
A human steps in to confirm the 'mark' with a metal detector and set about detonating
Dogs may be most useful in going around the edges of suspected minefields - whose
boundaries as marked by deminers usually err on the side of caution - to help narrow
But Porter, worried about factors such wind, heat, boredom, tiredness, says animals
can never guarantee an area 100 percent mine free.
Sothy says dogs have the potential to be much faster in locating mines, but CMAC
will reserve final judgment until after the three-month Swedish trial.
Dogs aside, deminers striving to reduce the time-comsuming part of mine clearance
- looking for them - are almost entirely focusing on mechanical solutions.
The Halo Trust, noting that its deminers spend as much as 75 percent of their time
trimming away foliage to allow them to run metal detectors over land, has devised
a mechanical vegetation cutter.
Unique to the demining world, it's a standard Russian tractor modified with an eight-meter
hydraulic arm bearing a heavy-duty cutter.
The cutter, mounted on skids, shaves away vegetation to just above ground level.
It shouldn't set off buried mines but trip-wired ones or unexploded shells may be
triggered by the skids - the cab of the tractor is armored to protect the driver.
Driven around a minefield's marked perimeter, the machine's arm reaches over onto
mined land. Deminers, freed from clearing vegetation by hand, can then begin their
work with metal detectors.
Halo boasts a 40 per cent increase in mine clearing speeds in trials of the machine,
and plans to import another, larger tractor to try to improve on that.
The project has been so far kept quiet, says Porter, to avoid any "ruthless
commercial interests" getting hold of the concept.
Commercialization of demining is the ogre of "humanitarian" deminers who
consider it perverse to pursue profit in the saving of limbs and lives.
Much time and money is being spent to develop the ultimate demining machine - one
that searches and destroys mines - around the world.
"Quite a lot of people are looking for a slice of this pie. They know whoever
makes one first is in for a lot of money," says a worker from another demining
Porter says foreign governments and companies are spending fortunes on mine clearance
research. They include state-of-the-art technology such as a United States project
on ground-penetrating radar and infra-red, but "mechanical clearance" tops
The first mechanical clearer to debut in Cambodia will be a tank-like contraption
made by the Swedish military, which is also providing the demining dogs.
The MV103C is an armored vehicle pushing a giant carbide metal-pronged roller, designed
to withstand anti-tank and anti-personnel mine blasts, which carves out a quarter-meter
deep trench in its path.
A prototype will arrive in Cambodia early next year for six months trial.
The 45-ton monster comes with obvious limitations: it needs flat and firm terrain.
An area of Banteay Meanchey province, chosen for its flatness, will be used for the
Phan Sothy says a similar German-made machine is also proposed for testing in Cambodia,
but will wait until after the Swedish trial.
For humanitarian demining, the biggest obstacle to future use of mechanical clearers
will be the price tag - the Swedish model is likely to cost $1-2 million apiece,
Sothy says the cost of the Cambodian trial, funded by the Swedish government, is
put at $3 million.
He makes it plain that, if the trial is successful, "we would be looking for
the contribution, not the purchase" of such machines.
"A lot of companies send us information about mine-clearing equipment but we
are not in the financial situation [to buy]."
One that it may be able to afford is very much an oddity in new demining technology:
cheap, low-tech and made-in-Cambodia.
The Mine Buster, the creation of a Danish inventor, is surprisingly simple: a trolley-like
device with a tightly-sprung thin metal arm on which a block of wood is attached.
Activated by tugging on a long piece of string, the metal arm swings over and thumps
the wood onto an anti-personnel mine. In theory, the blast goes upwards, shatters
the wood and knocks the arm backwards without damaging the device, positioned just
60-65cm from the mine.
It's the brainchild of Thomas Weber Carlsen, who, for his final architectural exam
in Denmark, didn't want to design anything "normal" like a chair or lamp.
"A friend told me of there was a huge mine problem in Cambodia and I got excited
about the possibility of looking, in a concrete way, at something to help solve the
problems of a developing country."
Carlsen produced a "purely theoretical project which would have cost an awful
lot to be developed" - which was enough to pass his final exam - and then decided
to pursue a more practical solution.
The result, with funding from the Danish Embassy in Bangkok, is the fifth Mine Buster
prototype. Packing a punch of about 13 kilograms, more than enough to set off anti-personnel
mines, it can't be used on anti-tank mines or unexploded ordinance.
Using a 500 riel block of wood to set off mines - rather than the explosives charges
used by deminers - the device is aimed to be cheaper, faster, safer and less polluting.
But does it work? Carlsen seems to have developed a reputation as "the mad Danish
inventor" among skeptical demining NGOs on whose doors he has gone knocking.
"People in the mine clearance area worldwide tend to come from a military background
and know what they're doing. The young barking inventor comes in from Copenhagen
and they think 'What on earth is this?'" says Porter.
But, as far as he can tell, it works. The Mine Buster was tried on two anti-personnel
mines in a Halo Trust site and passed the test.
CMAC has also tested it, using TNT explosive charges, and a more thorough trial is
proposed later this year. Phan Sothy says CMAC has yet to make "final comment"
on the device, but "we are happy to fully cooperate with Mr Carlsen due to his
interest in helping with the landmine problem."
The biggest advantage of the device is that it would replace the use of explosive
charges to detonate anti-personnel mines. Explosives are expensive and, when foreign-donated
supplies run dry, CMAC has to buy them on the world-market.
Carlsen believes the Mine Buster could be a winner for Cambodia. The device, made
of 100 percent Cambodian materials, was built at the Don Bosco NGO's metal workshops
for poor Khmer children.
If CMAC gives him a greenlight, he will hand over the rights to Don Bosco, which,
taking a small profit for itself, could sell Mine Busters for around $150 apiece.
But whether new machines to tackle the scourge of landmines cost $150 or $1 million,
Tim Porter reckons that progress will be slow.
"Nothing will replace manual demining in the next five years, and maybe ten.
It's the most effective method we are likely to have for some time."