Imaging drones to spot signs of explosive chemicals leaking from landmines

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University of Bristol researcher Dr Tom Scott with a landmine-hunting drone

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Care estimates there are some 110 million landmines buried around the world, with more than 70 people killed or injured each day by these deadly devices. Locating and disabling landmines is not only a meticulous and time-intensive task, but an incredibly dangerous one as well. Working to help keep humans out of harm's way, British scientists are developing drones with advanced imaging technology to more effectively map and speed up the clearing of affected areas.

Flying a drone over a football stadium would normally incite all kinds of outrage from protective managers determined to safeguard their secret tactics. But last week at Old Trafford, the home of global footballing giant Manchester United, an unmanned aircraft was given free rein as researchers demonstrated the potential of an airborne approach to landmine detection.

Funded by Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton, the Find A Better Way charity has been working since 2011 to advance technologies that will enable safer and more efficient clearance of landmines. Its latest push in this area involves teaming up with scientists at the University of Bristol to deploy drones that can quickly identify landmines buried in the ground.

The researchers estimate that removing the landmines scattered across the globe using current technologies would cost around US$30 billion and take more than 1,000 years. They plan to significantly cut these numbers by fitting drones with hyperspectral imaging technology to quickly identify where mines are buried.

"Flying over the Manchester United pitch will demonstrate that we can map a football pitch-sized area of land in two hours or less," said John Fardoulis, project researcher from Bristol University. "Clearing a minefield that size can currently take months, and the maps our drones will generate should help deminers focus on the places where mines are most likely to be found. This will speed the process up and make the demining significantly safer."

The Old Trafford flight saw the drone snap only high-res images to clearly show the terrain and objects on the ground, but this is only the first step. If the team's hyperspectral imaging drones come along as hoped, they will be able to perform flyovers and gather images at various wavelengths, or colors, of light, which could indicate explosive chemicals seeping from landmines into the surrounding foliage.

"Living plants have a very distinctive reflection in the near infrared spectrum, just beyond human vision, which makes it possible to tell how healthy they are," explains Dr John Day from the University of Bristol. "Chemicals in landmines leak out and are often absorbed by plants, causing abnormalities. Looking for these changes might be a way of discovering the whereabouts of mines."

The researchers also note that infrared imaging can expose unexploded and camouflaged mines that would otherwise go undetected.

The Bristol team isn't the only group turning to drones to combat landmines. Last year at the $1 million Drones For Good competition, Spanish company CATUAV was selected as a finalist for a drone fitted with optical sensors to scan war-affected regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina for landmines buried during the 1990s.

The British research effort kicked off in January 2016 and will last two years. The team is developing the technologies to work with commercially available drones, with a view to making the devices affordable and accessible in developing countries.

You can hear from some of the researchers involved in the video below.

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