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`Bomblets' problem in Laos might soon be solved, scientists say

Existing but as yet untested technology might soon rid Laos of the millions of American "bomblets" the size of tennis balls that currently plague citizens of that country, scientists concluded at a recent brainstorming session on the detection of land mines that was led by MIT physicists.

In other good news, the scientists found that existing technologies could also speed up the detection and disposal of land mines. These technologies-one of which was invented by the late MIT Professor James R. Melcher and colleagues-have the potential to increase demining operations over the next year or two by factors of five to 10 over current levels.

Similarly, the scientists found that sophisticated technologies now in development might improve the rate of demining operations a thousandfold over the next five years, thereby reducing cost as they increase safety. They cautioned, however, that these latter technologies are promising but must still be refined and tested.

These conclusions "injected a sense of optimism" into the six-day workshop held August 25-30, said Dr. Kosta Tsipis, director of the MIT Program in Science and Technology for International Security (PSTIS) and an organizer of the workshop with Institute Professors Emeriti Herman Feshbach and Philip Morrison.

However, he noted that serious problems remain in land-mine detection. Key among them: funding for the implementation of existing technologies and for research into potential technologies for humanitarian demining.

At the workshop, 14 scientists known for their ingenuity, including one Nobel laureate, applied their talents to the detection of abandoned land mines. There are some 110 million of these mines around the world; they inflict about 100 deaths or injuries every day. The scientists, eight of whom were from MIT, were joined in their efforts by mine experts from the Department of Defense and representatives from humanitarian groups who are working in the field on the problem.

"The idea was to provide a forum for coming up with ideas that could speed up detection efforts and make them cheaper and safer," Dr. Tsipis said. "And we did come up with several very good, very simple ideas."


The group realized that existing technology could solve the Laotian bomblets problem after discussions between the scientists and Titus Peachey, a Mennonite who has spent many years working on the removal of abandoned explosives from Laos and other countries. Mr. Peachey explained that Laos's major problem is not land mines, but bomblets. Millions of these were dropped by the US Air Force during the Vietnam War, but a good fraction did not explode. These unexploded bomblets are still a serious threat to villagers-and village children-who stumble across them everywhere.

The key technology to this end, developed by Professor Melcher (the late director of the Laboratory for Electromagnetic and Electronic Systems) and his group involves a sensor called the Meandering Winding Magnetometer. This device, a low-cost enhanced inductive metal detector, is very effective at discriminating bomblets-and mines-from other metallic objects. This can save time and money in the hunt for abandoned explosives.

Workshop participants also identified other serious problems and suggested potential solutions. For example, it is currently very difficult to detect plastic mines. Dogs, with their keen sense of smell, can do so, but they are inefficient to use on a large scale. Enter an electronic dog that could be considerably more efficient than the real thing. The equipment to devise such a dog currently exists, Dr. Tsipis said, but it must be adapted for land-mine work.

The scientists also recommended that a comprehensive database be compiled on the technical characteristics of mines. Such a database would aid efforts in developing new technologies for demining. The current database on mines includes basic information such as types of mines and their general composition, "but it does not give enough physical or chemical characteristics to find them," Dr. Tsipis said. "We know very little about the more subtle characteristics of mines. For example, we do not know their acoustic or microwave-absorption properties."


The countries plagued with mines do not have the funds to pay for either existing demining technologies or the research to perfect potentially useful technologies. As a result, developed nations must take the lead, Dr. Tsipis said. "And that will take political will, organization and, of course, money.

"The countries that can afford to give funds have the impression that demining is slow, unsafe and inefficient," Dr. Tsipis added. "So the publics of Europe, the United States and similar places are not ready to help in this effort. We hope to show that the technology does exist to speed up demining efforts and to make them more efficient and safe."

He concluded: "We went into this workshop feeling that little could be done [toward the land-mines problem], but we came out feeling that a great deal can be done."

Other MIT workshop participants were Professor Thomas W. Eagar, head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; Professor Lee Grodzins of the Department of Physics; Nobel laureate Henry W. Kendall, J.A. Stratton Professor of Physics; John G. King, Francis Friedman Professor of Physics, and Thomas B. Sheridan, professor of engineering and applied psychology in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and also a professor of aeronautics and astronautics. Elliza McGrand, PSTIS administrative assistant, was also present.

Participants also came from the following institutions: Los Alamos National Laboratory, Thermedics Detection, Inc., the Naval Research Laboratory, IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Harvard University, the Gordon Research Conference Center, the National Ground Intelligence Center (DOD), Humane Demining Technologies (the US Army), the Mennonite Central Committee, and Operation USA.

The workshop was held at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, and was funded by the Carnegie Corporation and the Ploughshares Fund. A full report on the meeting will be published this year by the Program in Science and Technology for International Security at MIT.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 11, 1996.

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