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Electromagnetic waves used to detonate landmines

Colombian soldiers who lost limbs in landmine accidents prepare for a military ceremony Keystone

A team of Colombian and Swiss scientists has developed a device to remotely detonate improvised explosive devices (IEDs) using electromagnetic waves.

This content was published on February 19, 2011 - 19:33
swissinfo.ch

IEDs, so-called roadside bombs, kill and mutilate hundreds of thousands of people every year in conflict zones in countries including Colombia, Afghanistan

“Colombia has one of the highest mine casualty rates in the world,” Nicolas Mora, a Colombian postgraduate research student at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), told swissinfo.ch.

“IEDs are installed by guerrillas to stop the army from moving forward. They are typically placed on jungle roads but these are places where people are living, going to school or hospital.”

Between 2005-2010 in Colombia, roadside bombs and unexploded ordinance killed 1,000 people annually; a third of the victims were civilians.

Two years ago Mora started working on the new device at the EPFL – developing theoretical electromagnetic studies and computer simulations, together with Felix Vega from the National University of Colombia in Bogota.

IEDS are made primarily of plastic to avoid being uncovered by conventional metal detectors. Most use an electric current or pair of wires for detonation.

One of the main difficulties the team encountered was how to induce an electromagnetic current that would be strong enough to set off a mine detonator which might be buried underground at a distance.

They also had to ensure they had the right resonance frequencies that matched the countless types of IEDs being made.

“No two IEDs are the same,” explained Farhad Rachidi, head of EPFL’s Electromagnetic Compatibility Laboratory. “The shapes, detonator caps and wires used are all different, and a system’s response to an electromagnetic wave depends on these parameters.”

 

Successful tests

But the team discovered that despite the wide range of deadly makeshift bombs, they all had similar frequency ranges, explained Mora.

“So we developed a system that concentrates on those, and thus loses less energy,” he added.

They successfully tested their system in Colombia last November and again in January 2011 using improvised mines provided by a team of professional bomb disposal experts. The devices were remotely set off at an average distance of 20 metres.

“Now we have to develop a smaller prototype that is weather-resistant and easier to transport in the field,” Vega noted.

The current instrument comprises a heavy generator and a 1.5-metre-high antenna on top of a metallic table.

 

Wide interest

While acknowledging that the new device is not really designed for use on conventional landmines, Rachidi is delighted with the results so far.

“This is the first time we have used electromagnetic waves in such a humanitarian project. We are used to studying the biological effects of electromagnetic fields on humans,” he said.

“We’ve received lots of messages and calls over the past two or three days from different people including armies; we just got a mail from the US Navy, which is very interested in what we are doing.”

Atle Carlson, a demining expert with Norwegian People’s Aid, welcomed the new device.

“IEDs are the problem in Colombia,” he noted. “Demining is dangerous work especially with IEDs, so in general we are very interested an any new technology that can help.”

Landmines and unexploded ordinance

The overwhelming majority of victims are civilians who trigger these devices years or even decades after a conflict ends. In Afghanistan, most victims are under the age of 18.

Mine action programmes and the anti-personnel mine-ban treaty or "Ottawa Convention" have led to a reduction in the annual number of casualties from an estimated 26,000 a decade ago to around 6,000 today.

Mine action is an integral part of Swiss peace and humanitarian security policy, and the government supports demining projects in more than 20 countries. Switzerland destroyed its last existing stocks of mines in 1999.

Switzerland has an annual budget of SFr16-18 million for its 2008-2011 mine action strategy.

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining is one of its main partners, together with specialised United Nations agencies, NGOs and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

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