The Historic Innovation of Land Mines—And Why We’ve Struggled to Get Rid of Them

A number of researchers are developing tools to defuse or detonate land mines without harming civilians

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Children have been crippled by land mines in Cambodia. trekholidays/iStock

Decades of internecine fighting and invasions by foreign forces into Afghanistan have left a deadly legacy for the country’s residents. In 2016, nearly 1,000 children were killed in Afghanistan, the most since the United Nations began keeping track seven years ago, in large part due to a 66 percent increase in casualties from land mines. With Islamic State (ISIS) militants making indiscriminate use of these violent, hidden weapons across Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, the problem is far from over.

How did this insidious weapon, with its long-lasting consequences that disproportionately affect civilians, come to be so prevalent?

While the use of explosive devices goes back to 13th-century China, when the Song Dynasty military used bombs to fend off invading Mongolians, the land mine didn’t take its modern form as a metal container rigged with gunpowder, a fuse and a detonation cap until the American Civil War. These “torpedoes” or “subterra shells” were pioneered by Gabriel Rains, a native North Carolinian who began the war fighting for the Union, before resigning to join his fellows in the Confederate Army. Rains, whose U.S. Military Academy records indicated a high aptitude for chemistry and artillery, first experimented with a tactical explosive device in April 1840, during the Seminole Wars in Florida. But it wasn’t until the Civil War that his invention was put to wide use.

The “Rains Patent” was a mine made of sheet iron, with a fuse protected by a brass cap covered with a solution of beeswax. It was detonated either by direct contact with the friction primer of the buried shell, or movement of an object attached to the primer by strings or wires, such as a tool like a hammer or shears.

Following the Siege of Yorktown in the spring of 1862, Rains and his men planted land mines along their route as the Confederate Army retreated. The explosives lined the road to Richmond and the abandoned fort, and were a horrifying surprise to the Union soldiers, writes historian W. Davis Waters. “Periodic explosions disturbed the quietness of Yorktown as unsuspecting Union cavalrymen and their horses moved through the abandoned Confederate fortification only to have the ground ripped beneath them.”

The soldiers were petrified and the generals appalled. “The rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct in placing torpedoes within the abandoned works near wells and springs, and near flag-staffs, magazines, and telegraph offices, in carpet-bags, barrels of flour, etc.,” went the statement from Union General George McClellan in the May 12, 1862 edition of the New York Herald.

Even Confederate generals expressed some qualms about the use of these subterra torpedoes, and briefly banned their use. But as the tides of war continued to turn against the Confederates, the generals grew less reluctant. Eventually Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph drafted the ethical standards for the use of the torpedoes. As Rains himself said, “Each new invention of war has been assailed and denounced as barbarous and anti-Christian. Yet each in its own turn notwithstanding has taken its position by the universal consent of nations according to its efficiency in human slaughter.”

Before long, Confederates had found ingenious ways to hide the bombs, wiring them so that they detonated upon direct contact, or by moving the articles attached to the primer. An especially well-disguised version was the “coal torpedo,” whose iron container was coated in beeswax then powdered with coal dust. Confederate soldiers could slip these into Union coal supplies, and when the fake nuggets of coal were unwittingly placed in the burner of a steam engine, the whole vessel would explode.

Although there are no precise figures on how many soldiers were killed and maimed by land mines, what’s known is how many ships they wrecked: 35 belonging to the Union and one of the Confederates. Rains reported 2,363 land mines were hidden around Richmond, and more were buried elsewhere throughout the South. They were so widespread that land mines continued to be recovered as late as the 1960s in Alabama.

From the Civil War, land mine technology spread rapidly around the world. The use of the devices was widespread throughout WWI and WWII, and in regional conflicts that occurred during the Cold War. By the 1990s, more than 26,000 people were victims of land mines each year.

“In the post-Cold War years—1989, 1999—the largest refugee population in the world were Afghanis and Pakistanis. They were being blown up by the thousands,” says Ken Rutherford, a professor of political science at James Madison University and the director of the Center for International Stabilization and Recovery. “What we’re talking about is a weapon of mass destruction that moves in slow motion.”

So began efforts to launch the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The group organized a Mine Ban Treaty that called for banning the use, production, stockpiling and transfer of antipersonnel land mines and required countries to destroy their stockpiles, clear affected areas of mines, and assist victims. Rutherford, who is himself a bilateral lower leg amputee due to a near-fatal land mine injury he sustained in 1993 in Somalia, played a role in bringing the treaty to fruition.

“For a year I really believed my story was kind of different and odd, a freak accident,” Rutherford says of the period immediately after he was injured. “I’m a Colorado boy, I’m telling people and they don’t believe it and I don’t believe it. But my story wasn’t unique, it wasn’t special at all. The real strange thing is so many people were being maimed and killed and nobody was writing about it.”

When the final draft of the treaty was written in 1997, over 120 countries became signatories; now, 162 have signed it, including all countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba and the United States. The U.S. is a leader in combating land mines, Rutherford says, and was the first country to permanently ban the export of land mines. The refusal to sign the treaty comes down to North Korea; if North Korean forces invade South Korea, the U.S. wants to be able to deter an invasion with the weapons of our choice.

“I’m proud of our country that we [support demining and help victims], but I’m not so proud because there are a lot of countries that look to the U.S. for leadership,” Rutherford says.

Today a number of organizations focus their energy on assembling a toolbox of technology for the continuing effort to eradicate land mines. One example is TIRAMISU, a research program that received funding from the European Commission and has collaborated with 26 groups around Europe for the research and development of new demining tools. The goal of these toolboxes is to assist in locating the mines, excavating them, and defusing or detonating them without any loss of life.

“I am very optimistic in our ability to create demining technology or to use at our advantage technology developed for other purposes, such as drones, tablets, etc.,” said TIRAMISU project coordinator Yann Yvinec by email.

The Historic Innovation of Land Mines—And Why We've Struggled to Get Rid of Them
A military engineer of the Russian Army's international counter-mine center helps conduct a demining operation in eastern Aleppo, Syria. Sputnik via AP

The most widely used tools are metal detectors, Yvenic said, which have become so sensitive that they can detect tiny pieces of metal. But using metal detectors is a time-consuming process, since they require deminers (who work on the ground with various tools to locate, excavate and deactivate land mines) to investigate all kinds of metal, not just land mines. In some cases, an area that is mined can be up to 98 percent mine-free, making it a time-consuming process. When Cambodia cleared 54 square kilometers of land and destroyed 20,000 land mines in 2014, the country accounted for 27 percent of the worldwide total clearance for that year. Demining is a slow, dangerous business, with no obvious end in site.

“More than 100 tons of unexploded ordinance are found in Belgium alone every year, and most of it dates from WWI,” Yvinec said. “I’ll therefore not venture an estimation of the time it will take to remove all mines and unexploded ordinance.”

But there’s plenty of new technology coming onto the market that might speed the process up—though Yvenic cautions it can be hard for humanitarian organizations to afford the new technology and to convince operators to use it. Nevertheless, he’s excited by the innovations that are emerging.

Lasers and Radar

“The most promising recent improvement [of metal detectors] was the combination with a ground penetrating radar, which can give an idea of the size of a buried object and therefore be used to discard metal detector signals coming from objects that are too small to be mines,” Yvinec said.

Ground penetrating radar works by sending pulses of energy into the earth, then recording the strength of waves that are reflected back and the time it takes for their reflection. Researchers have shown that using a GPR to generate a data set can minimize excess “noise” from non-land mine objects and help deminers locate real mines more rapidly.

A similar invention is a laser created by the U.S. Army and Air Force, which draws on 1,100 amps of power to detonate underground explosives from up to 1,000 feet away. This tool, however, is mainly limited to militaries with the money to invest in such technology, unlike the GPR-metal detector combo.

Robots and Drones

As the issue of land mines has become more visible, a number of innovators have taken to their personal laboratories to concoct machines that can eradicate land mines more rapidly. One example of this is the Mine Kafon Drone. Envisioned by Massoud Hassani, who rose to fame after creating a tumbleweed-like device to detonate land mines in Afghanistan, the Mine Kafon Drone is a higher-tech, homemade version of robots used by militaries. The drone flies over a field to map it with GPS points, hovering low to detect land mines with a metal detector extension. It then returns to the mines and places detonators on them so the mines can be exploded from a safe distance.

“The demining groups work well, but they’re too slow and they’re using old technologies,” Hassani told Fast Company. “We are trying to create a better tool for them with robotics and drones.” He added that the robots used by militaries cost anywhere from $78,000 to $557,000, whereas his open-source drone will be no more than $5,000 and will work 20 times faster than traditional demining technologies. For now, though, the drone is still in the research and development phase.

Another group turning to robotics are the Landmine Boys, a Canadian startup whose defusal machine is operated by remote control or run autonomously. The team offers one of the few tools available to defuse mines without exploding them. A second machine will then enter the area to excavate the mines. They’ve tested some of their prototypes in Cambodia and hope to release one or both of the machines by early 2018.

Animals and Insects

What do bees, rats and elephants have in common? They can all be trained to sniff out land mines without detonating them. “Once the bees are trained, they are left on their own and they tend to concentrate where there are explosives,” said Yvinec, who was impressed by the professionalism of the training team he observed at the University of Zagreb in Croatia. “I was surprised to learn that the hard part of their job was not to train the honeybees, but to track them once they are released.” The bees are trained with sugar-coated TNT and move through minefields in search of the treat, clustering together when they find it—though without any sugar.

A similar approach is used with African giant-pouched rats, who are trained to sniff out mines even deep underground, and are light enough that they don’t set the mines off. “They are very good,” Cambodian supervisor Hulsok Heng told NPR. “They clear [200 square meters] in only 30 minutes or 35 minutes. If you compare that to a deminer, maybe two or three days. The deminer will pick up all the fragmentation, the metal in the ground, but the rat picks up only the smell of TNT.”

As for the elephants, they too can smell land mines, an ability they seem to have developed after years of encountering and being injured or killed by the mines. But they aren’t being actively used to hunt them down. Instead the U.S. Army hopes this line of research can help develop more effective mine detectors.

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