Geophysicist helps develop landmine detection robot
Since war broke out four years ago between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, landmines and unexploded ordnance have littered the soil there, exposing farmers and others to the risk of injury or death.
Tim Bechtel wants to remove the risk, even after the conflict ends.
“A landmine stays in place for decades and it never goes to sleep,” said Bechtel, a geophysicist at Manor Township-based engineering firm Rettew Associates Inc. “It’s just there waiting.”
For the last three years, Bechtel has been working with an international team to develop a low-cost landmine-detection robot, one that could speed up the process for removing landmines. Their work has been funded by a $1 million grant from a NATO science program.
Bechtel is traveling to the Ukraine this month for a final test of the prototype: a small all-terrain vehicle outfitted with radar sensors and thermal imaging cameras.
Bechtel said he sees potential to customize the device for use in the U.S.
“There are so many tech spinoffs,” he said.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the Ukraine by landmines since 2014, while thousands more have been injured. Ukraine is one of many countries threatened by landmines, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.
A landmine costs only a few dollars to make. But the cost to remove one ranges from about $300 to $500. And the work is painstakingly slow. It usually involves probing with a sapper spike, metal-detector sweeps and explosives-sniffing dogs.
At the current rate of landmine removal, Bechtel said it would take 500 to 1,000 years to get them all out of the ground. And that’s not accounting for new mines that armed groups are either buying or digging up and replanting.
The robots can be controlled remotely and move quickly, allowing them to cover more ground in a shorter period of time.
Bechtel said the prototype robot looks like a rugged, weatherproof remote-control car. But it’s not racing for fun or profit. It’s got a life-saving job.
“This is not a business model here,” Bechtel said.
A goal of the NATO-funded research effort, Bechtel said, is to develop a robot that could be replicated by anyone with access to a 3-D printer and off-the-shelf components such as cameras, computer processors and a four-wheel vehicle chassis. The 3D printer is needed to make a camera stand and a housing unit for the radar sensors.
The project’s open-source design means that local governments and people in areas affected by landmines could access the blueprints and build or customize their own detection robots.
Back in the U.S., Bechtel said he sees opportunities to use a similar robot to help contractors detect buried gas and water lines, including non-metallic and fiber optic lines.
An automated robot also could be programmed to map a new job site, saving staff time. It might also be helpful in detecting the contents of a building’s foundation, so renovation contractors can avoid accidentally cutting through electrical conduits or steel rebar used to reinforce concrete.
“We could set it loose on a building floor and map everything in the slab,” said Bechtel, who sees the technology being used by companies like Enviroscan, a geophysics company that Rettew acquired earlier this year.
Bechtel and his wife, Felicia, led the firm before it was sold and continue to do so now that it is part of Rettew’s geophysics group. Geophysics is the science of detecting and mapping hidden underground or underwater objects and features.
Funding for a commercial application, he added, could come from venture capital firms or companies interested in exclusive control of the technology. But the focus now is on the humanitarian project.
Jeff Leberfinger, a geophysicist from Dauphin County, is excited about the possibilities.
Leberfinger is the technology committee chairman for the National Association of Ordnance Contractors, a nonprofit organization for companies that look for and dispose of unexploded bombs and offer related geophysical services.
He works in Swatara Township for Exploration Instruments, a Texas company that rents equipment to engineers and others involved in geotechnical work.
“The ordnance remediation community is always looking to apply new and innovative systems and methods to ordnance cleanup so it can be done in a safer and more cost-effective method,” he said. “Often the development of these systems can also be used for non-military applications such as environmental or geotechnical investigations.”