Archive for Sunday, November 24, 2002

KU researchers tackle worldwide land mines

November 24, 2002


Bory Pen loves being in the United States, where you can walk wherever you want.

It's not like that in Cambodia, the Kansas University graduate student's home country. There, land mines in rural areas restrict everything from agriculture to children's play.

"We have enough land mines to kill all the people in the country," he said. "They're like hidden enemies ready to kill."

A KU researcher wants to change that.

The United Nations has estimated there are 70 million land mines buried in more than 80 countries. Jim Stiles, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, wants to find them.

Stiles is working on ground-penetrating radar techniques designed to locate land mines, which kill, injure or maim 18,000 people per year.

"Finding a solution for the mine detection problem is like finding a solution for some terrible disease," he said. "There are lots of researchers working on parts of the problem."

Stiles' research, financed by the U.S. Army, is part of a nationwide effort to develop new techniques for finding mines.

Radar is effective in finding objects beneath the surface, but it's not as good at determining what those objects are.

"The problem is a whole bunch of things sort of look like mines, like rocks," he said. "You have a lot of false alarms. Everything that remotely looks like a mine has to be treated as a mine just to be safe."

Stiles used his grant funding to hone the radar system. By looking at subsurface objects from several sensors, it can create a three-dimensional view that can determine whether the objects are symmetrical. If they are, they're more likely to be mines.

He hasn't tested his technology in actual mine fields, which are most common in Afghanistan, Bosnia/Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Mozambique and Vietnam. Most of the testing is done in a big sand box in Nichols Hall on KU's West Campus.

Stiles said researchers were most excited about emerging technology similar to a magnetic resonance imaging that can determine not only the shape of an underground object but also its material makeup.

Some detection techniques now involve hand-held devices, and others in development could be attached to robots. Army officials eventually would like techniques that scan large areas at once or could be operated from aircraft.

"There's a lot of work to be done, and when and what makes it out in the field remains to be seen," Stiles said. "If the results of this research were to get to the field, this would be very rewarding. We're glad to work on it, and the students appreciate the severity of the problem."

Pen knows first-hand the severity of the problem. In Cambodia, mines injure or kill four or five people every day.

"People just walk into their back yards, step on a mine and are killed," he said. "We have a lot of handicapped people who were hurt by land mines. A lot of them are beggars. There's nothing else for them to do."

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