UofL Engineer Reduces Landmine Dangers
By Kevin Rayburn
In the time it takes for a typical American to commute to work or to take an evening jog, two more people somewhere in the world have lost a limb or their sight or their lives to landmines.
That's because in more than 70 countries—even peaceful ones—lie buried an estimated 60 million to 100 million landmines or other unexploded weaponry. Most often, the victims of these remnants of past or ongoing wars are unintended targets: civilians.
Although many minefields have been identified and their contents removed, new mines—as many as 2.5 million a year—are being placed in the ground.
In war hotspots such as Afghanistan and Iraq the dangers of still-active mines from past wars are compounded by newly laid ones as well as by improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
IEDs have been the scourge of the U.S. military since the start of the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003. Commonly referred to as "roadside bombs," these homemade explosive devices are similar to mines but can be made using a wide variety of materials (including cell phone parts) and explosive chemicals. They are the number one source of U.S. and coalition casualties in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. From July 2003 to July 2007 IEDs killed more than 1,500 coalition forces and wounded even more, according to the organization Iraq Coalition Casualty Count.
Trying to find these hidden dangers has not been easy. Metal mines are relatively easy to find with traditional detectors, but increasingly mines are made with plastics and other hard-to-detect materials. Some are buried just a few inches from the surface while others can lie two or more feet below. And slowing down to look for them bogs down an army that needs to move quickly.
To improve the technology used to find buried explosives, the defense department is increasingly tapping the expertise of engineers at American universities.
One of those is Hichem Frugui, an associate professor of computer engineering and computer science in UofL's J.B. Speed School of Engineering.
A major aim of Frigui's research is to improve the way detectors interpret data gathered from ground penetrating radar that is used on special mine sweeping military vehicles and hand-held devices.
"An army can't stop for every object," Frigui says. "You want to know if that suspicious object is a real mine or just another tin can. Sometimes, with older methods of detection, it can be hard to tell the difference."
Among the challenges to accurate detection include the wide variety of landmine types. Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines come in many shapes and sizes and are made of myriad materials. Another problem is that the effectiveness of detectors can vary according to terrain or soil type. Even water or snow on the ground can cause data readings to differ.
To tackle these problems, Frigui and his research team are developing algorithms—computer-based mathematical formulas—that can help detectors better filter out extraneous visual "noise" and present a clearer picture of objects below the ground.
With financial support from the defense department, Frigui works in tandem with research colleagues at other universities and with companies such as Niitek and BAE to develop the technology.
Frigui's algorithms and related mathematical models have analyzed data gathered for four years from more than 41,000 kilometers of simulated minefields located at military bases across the country. The data was gathered from grass fields, dirt and asphalt roads, snowy ground and other surfaces. All sorts of mine types were examined.
Reducing "false alarms" by the detectors has been one of Frigui's objectives. "We've been able to do that," he says. "In the best case scenario, we can get roughly 95 percent (accurate) detection with 1.5 false alarms per 1,000 meters square."
The improved performance is the result of the fusion of four different algorithms, some developed at UofL.
"It's a great example of cooperative research," he says.
So far, the U.S. Army has lauded the results. Although Frigui and the Army won't say where the newest detectors featuring Frigui's improvements are being used, they say that they are helping protect soldiers.
A letter addressed to UofL last April from Richard Weaver, director or the Army's Countermine Division, confirms this.
"Based upon [Frigui's] work, the U.S. Army is in a position to deploy its first vehicular-mounted detection system. This is an extremely important milestone for the U.S. Army in supporting our soldiers in an extremely dangerous mission."
In addition to continuing to improve landmine detection, Frigui says he wants to see if his methods also could be used in detecting IEDs.
He also says the new detectors he helped develop are being used to find and clean old landmine sites in undisclosed areas of the world.
"It's rewarding to know that the research you do is not only being used right away in the field, but is maybe even saving lives."