The deadly danger that you can’t see

Deadly danger

Many countries have banned landmines, but millions continue to lie in wait for unsuspecting victims. The methods used to find and deal with them have had to keep pace with their increasing sophistication.

Check out my latest piece for BBC Future in full below or by following this link to the original.

“Danger: Minefield” are two words with an almost unsurpassed power to stop you in your tracks. It is Paul Heslop’s job to step past them.

Heslop is the United Nations Mine Action Service (Unmas) chief of programmes, supporting mine clearance, or “demining”, operations in 18 countries – and is a deminer himself.

“If demining is close to any job, then it is archaeology, because it is calm, slow, repetitive work,” says Heslop, who started clearing landmines 23 years ago. He says driving to the minefield is more dangerous than actually clearing mines. “We use a metal detector to find out where a mine is and then scrapers and prodders to carefully excavate it. A good deminer may find one mine a week.”

Some estimates suggest there be as many as 110 million landmines buried in the 60 or so countries contaminated by these deadly devices. However, no one really knows for sure because some of these mines may date back to World War Two, their locations lost to history.

(Credit: Getty Images)

Clearing minefields takes a lot of time and effort (Credit: Getty Images)

Out of these countries Afghanistan is the country widely considered to have the greatest number of landmines. However, huge numbers can still be found in countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Bosnia and Angola. And landmines continue to be used in hot spots like Myanmar, Libya and Syria – including by groups like so-called Islamic State.

The numbers of men, women and children killed and – more often, maimed – by landmines have started to increase again because of these conflicts. In 2015 about 6,500 people were killed or injured from landmines worldwide. Most of the victims were civilians and roughly a one-third were children.

Despite these challenges, it is possible to clear a country of landmines. It just takes a long time. After 22 years of hard work, Mozambique was declared free of mines in 2015. Over 200,000 landmines were removed or destroyed from 17 million square miles of land.

Unlike a sentry, a landmine never needs to sleep

Today, most demining activities are supported or run by humanitarian organisations like Unmas or the Halo Trust. Once a conflict is over, it is their job to train local people to use metal detectors to help find and then clear the mines. The clearing technique is less dramatic than the movies might tell you. Rather than blast a gap through a minefield – the traditional military approach to demining – the humanitarian organisation’s goal is 100% clearance, which is a lot trickier. It is often said that the only thing that guarantees an area has been completely cleared is that the deminer walks out the same way he or she came in.

Large numbers of landmines are often used to defend a military position instead of soldiers; unlike a sentry, a landmine never needs to sleep. And rather like a castle’s walls and moats, minefields can be used to channel an attacking army into what are chillingly called “killing zones”. And only a few mines need to be scattered over a field or in a forest to turn productive land into an overgrown wasteland. Even the threat of a mine is a powerful incentive to stay away.

The development of mine-clearing techniques has been constantly changing – because landmines themselves have been constantly updated.

(Credit: iStock)

Even the threat of a mine can make an area a no-go zone (Credit: iStock)

The exact first use of something that we would recognise as a landmine is lost in the mists of time. What we do know is that a landmine may have first been used as early as the Third Century AD in China. In 1277 the generals of Imperial China were certainly using mines against the Mongol hordes invading their country. While some of these mines were rudimentary affairs, some weren’t – they could be triggered when they were disturbed by a charging horseman. It took another three hundred years for the first landmine to be used in Europe by a Spanish soldier called Pedro Navarro.

The first modern land mine was created in the American Civil War. Inspired by simple explosive booby traps, General Gabriel J Rains developed the landmine to defend the positions of the outnumbered Confederate Army at the Battle of Yorktown in 1862. The German military then refined Rains’ design in the years immediately leading up to World War One and warfare was never the same again. It was very quickly copied by other armies.

In the years afterward anti-personnel landmines became more and more dangerous. In World War Two, the Germans developed the S-mine. This was known as “Bouncing Betty” because when it was triggered it flew about a metre into the air, exploded and sprayed shrapnel all directions. The USA’s Claymore landmine is infamous for the “front toward enemy” stamped on its casing. It can be controlled remotely and explodes in one direction, spraying shrapnel rather like a shotgun.

Today anti-personnel mines are still being used in conventional war by states not party to the Mine Ban Treaty – Benedict Wilson, King’s College London

When the first tanks appeared on the Western Front in World War One, the first anti-tank landmines were improvised affairs. However, by the end of the war the Germans’ started to mass produce the wooden Flachmine 17 mine. In 1929 the first modern anti-tank land mine was developed in Germany. This was the flying-saucer shaped Tellermine 29, which influenced generations of designs

As mines grew more sophisticated – and more numerous – the need to clear them became more urgent.  One of the first ways to clear mines was the ‘Mine Roller’- a plough was attached to the front of a French tank in 1918. Other tank-based methods were also tried; the flail, which detonates mines in front using whirling metal chains, was used with great success by Allied forces during the D-Day landings. Today, a similar system called the Aardvark is still in use by demining organisations.

It is not just clearing technology that has had to change. Devices to find mines had to become more and more sophisticated as well. The iconic handheld mine detector was invented by a Polish officer, Jozef Kosacki, before the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and then smuggled out before the Polish surrender. It was first used to clear the minefields at El Alamein in Egypt during the North African campaign – and remains the mainstay of demining.

Just like the detectors used to find Iron Age gold, these detectors use electricity to generate a magnetic field, which, when swept over a piece of metal, causes another magnetic field to be created. This second field is picked up by the detector and generates a noise. The closer it is to the object the louder the noise.  Detectors unfortunately work better in some soil types than others and can only tell you where a piece of metal is, not what it is. They generate many false readings as a result.

(Credit: iStock)

Flails – chain whipped around by a powerful motor – have been an effective method for clearing mines (Credit: iStock)


There has been concerted efforts to ban mines in recent years, but landmines don’t yet belong to history. In 1997 the Mine Ban Treaty banned the manufacture, stockpiling and use of anti-personnel mines by the 162 countries that have signed the act. While it has reduced the numbers of landmines in use, for those that didn’t it is almost business as usual. Major arms producers such as the United States, Russia, and China have retained huge stockpiles of mines. India, Myanmar, Pakistan and South Korea still manufacture them – and others reserve the right to.

“Today anti-personnel mines are still being used in conventional war by states not party to the Mine Ban Treaty,” says Dr Benedict Wilkinson, senior research fellow at the Policy Institute at King’s College London. “Legacy mines from previous conflicts continue to seriously harm civilians, and different types of improvised explosive devices [IEDs] are now being deployed as landmines by non-state armed groups like ISIS.”

Today the British Army uses the Python mine breaching system which shoots a snake of high explosives high into the air and on to a minefield, where it explodes

“To understand the threat posed by IEDs you have to understand that they are the weapon of choice of people who have no choice,” says Major General Jonathan Shaw, a former commander of British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and now chairman of Optima, which specialises in IEDs removal. “With standard landmines, once you know what one mine is, you know what the rest of them are like. All of this goes out of the window when it comes down to these localised mines made out of whatever components they can find.”

Metal detectors like Heslop’s may be more powerful and capable than when they were invented, but they would still be recognisable to a soldier from that period. However, there are other technologies being used that are decidedly more 21st Century. At Manchester University, Professor Anthony Peyton is busy looking for the premises that will house the new £5.5m state-of-the-art Centre for International Research for the Clearance of Landmines and Explosives (Circle). Peyton’s own project – Semis – which aims to turn the metal detector into a device that recognises and classifies mines, is due to start trials soon.

“We have used metal detectors since they were invented in World War Two and they are still the dominant device used by the community,” says Peyton, “The community knows them well, and understand them, but the limitations are quite considerable. What we are trying to do in Circle and the Semis programme is to develop the best electromagnetic technology and then combine it with other technology like ground-penetrating radar, commercial virtual reality headsets, helmet cams and drones.”

(Credit: iStock)

Mine technology leaped forward in World War Two when many millions were laid (Credit: iStock)

Today the British Army uses the Python mine breaching system which shoots a snake of high explosives high into the air and on to a minefield, where it explodes, detonating the mines. In some countries, dogs are regularly employed to find mines due to the sensitivity of their noses to the chemicals that make up explosives, though their effectiveness often depends on their bond with their handlers.  One of the biggest innovations of the last 10 years is bolting ground-penetrating radar onto the metal detector. However, this expensive piece of kit is only now finding its way from the military into civilian hands and suffers from some of the same limitations as metal detectors in that it generates false readings and can’t tell the operator what the object is that they have found.

“There hasn’t been a lack of innovation in the past. It’s just that the proliferation of minefields during the 1960s, 70s and 80s has made it a more pressing issue,” says Lou McGrath, CEO of Find a Better Way. This is a charity founded by British soccer hero Sir Bobby Charlton to fund research into mine clearance, and which is funding Circle and Semis. “While lots of new technologies in the past have sounded very good, they have struggled to clear the ground entirely.

“What we have found is that the only way to guarantee that the land is 100% clear is manual clearance. No one will send their children to a school which is only 95% cleared of mines.”

Researchers are already trying to equip drones with thermal imaging cameras, because mines can appear as hotspots in the ground

“I am certainly not going to go into an area that has only been flailed,” adds McGrath. “Flails have been used by NGOs, but the flail will miss mines so it’s hard to say that it has cleared ground 100%. They are useful if you need to clear some land quickly.”

“As well as Project Semis we are looking at augmented reality,” says Anthony Peyton. “Consumer reality VR is moving at a hell of a pace at the moment and we are hopeful that devices like Halo can benefit humanitarian work.

“At the moment it is also difficult to tell if operators are not sweeping the detector over the correct area. On the deminer’s helmet you could have a camera and GPS to see what they are seeing and where they are standing.

(Credit: iStock)

In poorer countries, mine clearing is often carried out by hand by locals (Credit: iStock)

“All this data could then be transmitted back to someone who is 100 metres away or even the other side of the world. You could even use AI techniques to look at the data deminers are looking at.”

Researchers are already trying to equip drones with thermal imaging cameras, because mines can appear as hotspots in the ground. Others are trying to turn them into flying metal detectors with their own ground-penetrating radar.

“Perhaps you can get a drone to hop along?” says Peyton. “It is probably too light to detonate a mine and even if it did you would be at a safe distance. Ultimately if all a deminer ends up doing is holding a detector at the end of a stick, why can’t a machine do that?”

However, for Heslop cheaper innovations in mine clearing are already making a difference to his work. The use of satellite imagery to spot mine fields means that even Afghanistan, the most-mined country in the world,  could be cleared by 2023

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