Whether in Cambodia's jungle, in Mali's desert or on the doorstep of the European Union in the Ukraine – anti-personnel mines are mostly invisible to the naked eye. The Landmine Monitor reported over 3700 casualties in 2014 who fell victim to these malicious weapons – 80 per cent of which were civilians. The disposal of these explosives is risky also: up to this day people risk their lives while exploring mined areas with hand-held devices – in rough, overgrown terrain the search with military vehicles becomes nearly impossible. Since the beginning of 2016, Ulm University and Ulm University of Applied Sciences have been working together with the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland on the project FindMine to develop a solution: a drone flying across mined territory, scanning the ground for explosives with the help of radar sensors. The project is funded for three years by the Urs Endress Stiftung, a foundation dedicated to the development of modern detectors to trace mines, unexploded ordnance and other weapons.
The aerial search for mines seems both simple and ingenious. But the project presents the scientists with numerous challenges: drones, for example, are unstable and sway during flight – the trajectory, however, needs to be established as precisely as possible in order to receive high-resolution footage. This is the only way to ensure that small objects can be focussed and therefore detected. While the researchers at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) optimise the flight apparatus, Ulm University (radar signal processing) and Ulm University of Applied Sciences (radar hardware) bundle their expertise in radar technology. The engineers around Professor Christian Waldschmidt, Director of the Institute of Microwave Techniques at Ulm University, draw from their experiences in other areas of application – from autonomous driving to mining and even agriculture, where drones are used to rescue animals hidden in the fields from being injured or killed by agricultural machines.'Many mines are buried in the ground, which is why we use a ground radar with a relatively low frequency. The radar waves penetrate the ground and a high-resolution image is generated from the many recordings along the drone's flightpath,' Waldschmidt and his doctoral student Markus Schartel explain. Image processing and pattern recognition with special algorithms provide information on the type of object and its position with centimetre precision.
The researchers have completed first tests already. In the next steps they need to fit the drone to the radar technology and vice versa. They also need to account for the varying ground conditions in mined areas – from extremely dry to swampy. Tests in actual mine fields, as present around Sarajevo or in Cambodia, are scheduled towards the end of the project.
The university engineers and the company of the founder, Endress + Hauser, have collaborated successfully in several projects in the past. Project FindMine owes its sensor technology to the company. Additional support comes from the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action (FSD), who assist the researchers in an advisory capacity.
The explosive devices not only cause human suffering: mined territory can simply not be farmed, which compromises the rehabilitation of former war zones. The German-Swiss research team contributes greatly to the safe disposal of these malicious weapons, which rob civilians of their lives many years even after a conflict has ended.
Text and media contact: Annika Bingmann
Ulm University, the youngest university in Baden-Württemberg, was founded in 1967 as university for medicine and natural sciences. The subject spectrum has been expanded considerably since then. The currently around 10,000 students are spread across four Faculties (‘Medicine‘, ‘Natural Sciences‘, ‘Mathematics and Economics’, and ‘Engineering, Computer Sciences and Psychology‘).
Ulm University is the centre of and driving force behind the Science City of Ulm, a dynamically growing research environment including hospitals, technology companies and other institutions. The University's research foci comprise life sciences and medicine, bio-, nano- and energy materials, financial services and their mathematical methods, as well as information, communication and quantum technologies.