Through a nearly $1 million grant from NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme, RETTEW geophysicist and Franklin & Marshall College professor Tim Bechtel, as part of an international team, previously designed a prototype of an autonomous robot used to probe minefields in Ukraine. Now, NATO is funding a new project to significantly improve the robot’s process and accuracy.

“In an area of the world that could be rebuilding its economy, ordinary people live with the constant threat of death or dismemberment from buried landmines.” Bechtel said. “This project is being completed specifically for humanitarian demining, not military purposes.”

In recent years, armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has left the soil littered with landmines and other explosive remnants of war. The Donbas region of eastern Ukraine is now classified as one of the most dangerous areas on earth. The landmines not only pose a major safety concern, but they inhibit agriculture, economic development, and ultimately community growth.

The prototype robot uses two scanners; one for rapid detection of buried objects and the other to obtain a detailed picture, which helps determine if the object could be a mine. However, the robot can be improved as it is still very difficult to differentiate between mines and round rocks.

“Currently, there are two sensors built onto one robot. By separating these sensors in the next iteration, we put less weight on each robot. This will also provide many benefits in terms of power consumption and maneuverability,” Bechtel said.

In this follow-up project, the team plans to build two to three additional robots, each with different scanners to perform different functions. The first scanner will detect trip wires attached to booby traps, which often protect minefields. The second scanner will be used for rapid detection of buried objects. The third scanner will provide detailed subsurface imaging of targets, which will help determine their metallic content. The fourth will carry a metal detector. The robots will follow one another through a minefield and communicate as a team. The lead robot will make sure they avoid traps, the second will locate objects, and the third and fourth will create and transmit images to remote operators who can decide if the object is harmless or a potential explosive device.

This project is funded by a three-year grant from the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme (Project G-5731), beginning September 1, 2020. Team members include the University of Florence (Italy), The Institute of Radio Physics and Electronics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Jordan University of Science and Technology, and Franklin & Marshall College (Lancaster, PA). The Advisory Board includes members from Walnut Laboratory (Japan), Fenix Insight (UK), the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, and RETTEW.