A humanitarian organisation based in northwestern Switzerland has received the go-ahead for its new demining vehicle to start working in Sudan.
After six months' testing in Sudan, the Digger D-2 has won official approval from the United Nations to be deployed in clearing Sudanese mine fields.
The news is a suitable reward for the engineers in the town of Tavannes who have worked for the past eight years to develop cost-effective, high quality mine clearance tools.
The Digger Foundation, which built the machine, dates back to a meeting in 1998 with Michel Diot, the co-founder of the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action.
"At the time we knew that there were major problems with minefields covered with vegetation," said Digger Foundation director Frédéric Guerne.
"The challenge was to build a small remote-controlled vehicle that could clear both undergrowth and mines."
Over the next three years around 30 enthusiastic foundation members spent their evenings and weekends perfecting the design of a light, remote-controlled armoured vehicle, known as the D-1, which was tested in Kosovo and Albania.
"It was a major challenge as our future depended on it," added Guerne. "We had to sort out many problems on the spot and the results were below what we expected."
But it gave them the necessary encouragement to come up with the design of the demining vehicle that is currently being used in Sudan.
"So far we have invested eight years' of work, tens of thousands of hours and a lot of money and we still haven't saved a single life. Everything is starting now," said Guerne.
The foundation hopes to build on current interest in the Digger D-2 - a cross between a tractor and an armoured vehicle - to enter a new phase in order to market and produce up to six vehicles per year.
Compared with its main competitors, the foundation is unique in that it is a non-profit-making organisation with a humanitarian mission.
The foundation has the official status of a charity in Switzerland and no shareholders. Its engineers earn around SFr3,000 ($2,480) per month after tax – three times less than in the private sector.
"We want to show that it's possible to get involved in humanitarian work and not necessarily seek large profits," said Nathan Kunz, the foundation's vice-director.
The philosophy behind the foundation can clearly be seen in the quality of the vehicles, which use high-quality armour plating, a V-shaped chassis, special tracks to handle anti-tank mines and ultra-sophisticated remote control units.
In humanitarian demining all mines must be removed from a minefield to ensure best-possible safety. Fitted with highly resistant flails, Digger-2 digs and turns over the soil to a depth of 20 centimetres, which facilitates the work of those carrying out manual detection.
"There is huge potential in terms of complementarity between demining teams and our machine," said Guerne.
swissinfo, Mathias Froidevaux in Tavannes
Antipersonnel mines kill or mutilate some 15,000-20,000 people every year. Hundreds of thousands of others are affected indirectly by being prevented from accessing water points or health centres.
Around 70 countries are infested with mines – an area twice the size of Switzerland (41,293 square kilometres).
The 140-horsepower vehicle weighs 7.3 tons and is 5.2 metres long.
It is fitted with a system of flails to clear the land and dig up the soil to a depth of 20 centimetres. It takes eight hours to clear an area the size of a football pitch.
Digger D-2, which was launched in September 2006.
The Digger Foundation provided the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD) with a Digger D-2 vehicle for its programmes in Sudan that involve clearing 1,200 kilometres of roads.
According to the FSD, 21 of Sudan's 26 provinces are infested with mines. In 2005 77 mine accidents were recorded (11 deaths and 66 injuries).
Digger D-2 received official accreditation from the Mine Action Office of the UN in Sudan to be deployed in mine fields at the end of October 2006.
For "Operation Sudan" the Digger Foundation is supported by the City of Geneva, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Swiss army, cantonal authorities, as well as Swiss Solidarity.
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