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Drones for Good: How Drones Coupled with AI Have the Potential to Rid the World of Dangerous Landmines

BY Zacc Dukowitz
6 August 2020

Back in 2016, news broke of a drone in development that would be able to map, detect, and detonate landmines.

The drone was called the Mine Kafon Drone (MKD) and the goal of its creators was incredibly ambitious: to clear the world of all landmines within ten years.

mkd-drone-prototype
Photo credit: Mine Kafon Drone

Fast forward to 2020, and the MKD drone has raised over $210,000 on Kickstarter—well over its original goal of $83,000—although it still hasn’t been released.

But it looks like it will be available soon.

The most recent update on the MKD Kickstarter page is from January of this year. It outlines in detail the progress the startup has made, including testing and prototyping, and shares that its landmine mapping and detection drones are finally ready for production.

However, a lot has happened in the last four years, and MKD is no longer the only company working on a drone for landmine detection.

In this article, we’re going to look at why demining drones are so important and the different drone technology out there being developed to meet this unique need.

Why Develop a Landmine Detection Drone?

The reason that demining drones (or landmine detection drones) are so important is that landmines kill people every day all over the world.

While some of these deaths happen in places where there is an ongoing armed conflict, like Syria or Afghanistan, they are also happening in places like Vietnam, where the war ended decades ago.

Since 1975, land-mines have exploded under more than 1 million people and are currently thought to be killing 800 people a month. There seems little prospect of any end to the carnage. In 64 countries around the world, there are an estimated 110 million land-mines still lodged in the ground—waiting.

– UNICEF

Throughout the world, dozens of corporations and nonprofits are devoted to safely removing landmines.

But their methods usually require people to physically walk along the ground, holding a metal detector. Once a landmine is found, its extraction is also manual, which means that demining workers are exposed to the extreme dangers of an explosion throughout their work.

A drone presents a much more efficient, and much safer, alternative, making this one of the most prominent drones for good applications out there, where drones can literally save lives.

And the need is significant.

According to MKD’s most recent update, they’ve already been in contact with 50 parties who are potentially interested in their mine mapping and detection drones, including “NGOs, governments, and resellers of demining products.”

Binghamton University Develops AI-Powered Demining Drone

As we mentioned above, MKD isn’t the only player in the demining drone game.

Researchers at Binghamton University have been experimenting with using inexpensive commercial drones outfitted with infrared sensors to collect visual data, which can then be reviewed for signs of landmines.

While the ability to use any commercial drone platform is a great part of this approach, since it’s highly scalable, the need to manually review all the visual data collected has presented a hurdle for scaling the approach.

This is where AI comes in.

Using machine learning, researchers have been training a model to recognize patterns in data collected by drone that correspond with landmines. And initial tests have been very promising.

The approach has even proven effective for finding some of the most hard-to-spot landmines, such as Soviet PFM-1 “butterfly” mines, which are still scattered throughout parts of Afghanistan from the Soviet-Afghan war that took place there in the late 1970s and 1980s.

These mines are notoriously hard to identify due to their small size and the fact that metal is not a predominant part of their design, but researchers at Binghamton University have demonstrated that their AI can find them.

Drones could be used to detect dangerous “butterfly” landmines in post-conflict regions

Extrapolating from these successful tests, if their approach can find these small, hard-to-see mines, it will likely be successful for other demining efforts as well.

Greek Army Rumored to Purchase Turkish Landmine Detection Drones

While the Binghamton University approach to landmine detection employs inexpensive commercial drones, on the other side of the spectrum are high-end drones made specifically for landmine detection.

Assuva landmine detection drone
Photo credit: Assuva Defence

According to recent reports, the Greek Army recently bought 50 such drones from Turkish drone company Assuva Defense.

According to a statement from Assuva, its tactical drones come with a thermal camera, can capture images 50 meters underground, and are specially made to detect underground bunkers, explosives, landmines, and chemical materials. They’re also commonly used in search and rescue.

Note: Although this story was covered by several reputable sources, the Greek Defence Ministry has denied plans to purchase Assuva’s drones. It’s unclear at this time if Greece simply doesn’t want the purchase to be made public or if news of the purchase is in fact false.

MKD’s Drone Landmine Solution

MKD’s demining drones are also likely to be high-end (i.e., expensive and training-intensive) solutions.

While the startup initially set out to create a single drone platform that could map, detect, and detonate landmines, after years of R&D they have ultimately created two different drones: one for mapping, and one for detecting and detonating.

This image details the startup’s proposed three-step process for ridding an area of landmines:

mkd-landmine-detection-drones

Following the image above, Step 1 (the left panel) is performed by MKD’s Destiny surveillance drone, which has been created to survey and map the land.

Introducing the MK Destiny

After the Destiny has completed its mapping work, Step 2 (the middle panel) and Step 3 (the right panel) are executed by MKD’s Manta detection drone, which was created to detect and detonate landmines.

Introducing the MK Manta

MKD has also developed its own proprietary software to analyze aerial data and detect landmines. Like the approach taken by researchers at Binghamton University, MKD’s demining software employs AI to stitch together and analyze the various data collected by drone.

While the MKD two-drone approach may be the most effective way to completely address the landmine problem, because it not only finds mines but also removes them, it does sound prohibitively expensive and complicated.

Most likely, future drone demining efforts will see a patchwork of technologies employed, with the approach taken in a given area determined by funding and access to resources, such as drone pilot training and training for supporting software.

But we do know that MKD’s dream back in 2016 will be a reality. Drones are already helping to locate landmines and prevent them from killing people, and this work will only grow in scope as time passes.

Although drones may not eradicate landmines from the earth within ten years, the technological developments we’ve seen since MKD first proposed the idea makes it clear that the goal is not only possible, but well worth pursuing.

Know of other ways drones are helping to save lives? Share what you know in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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