How Two College Students Hacked Consumer Drones to Find Landmines

This could save thousands of lives.

Though the use of anti-personnel explosives has been prohibited since 1997, landmines continue to kill or maim roughly ten people per day around the world. Mines are often hidden from sight, and some can’t even be spotted by metal detectors.

The highly explosive anti-infantry PFM-1, or "butterfly," mine.

Wikimedia Commons

For example, the “butterfly” landmines is particularly deadly. Enter a pair of undergraduate students, who have developed a new drone technology that can detect these previously undetectable butterfly landmines from the sky.

First, you should know there are a few reasons why butterfly landmines are so hard to detect: They’re made from small plastic containers filled with explosive liquid, which makes them virtually invisible to traditional methods of minesweeping. But Jasper Baur and William Frazer, students at New York’s Binghamton University, successfully developed a work-around to the old ways by using thermal cameras attached to a drone.

Their project won first-place in the aerospace and defense category at the Create the Future Technology Wednesday.

The design has potential to put a dent in the striking number of casualties caused by mines in 2018. Out of 7,239 total deaths last year, 4,523 were caused by non-improvised mines, which means that the mines at fault were military-grade and likely left over from past conflicts, according to the 2018 Landmine Monitor report.

Jasper Baur, a Binghamton junior studying geology on the left. William Frazer, a senior studying geophysics on the right.

Binghamton University, State University of New York

Baur and Frazer focused particularly on the PMF1 mines developed by the Soviet Union and used as recently as the Soviet-Afghan War that lasted until 1989. Many of the tiny, but deadly, explosives still remain buried in Afghanistan.

“Their entire bodies are made out of plastic, where the more traditional land mine has some sort of metallic casing that can be detected with electromagnetic methods very easily,” Frazer said in a statement. “They are also difficult to find because a plastic land mine can be as small as your iPhone, or even smaller.”

The secret to the new method was the discovery that, since mines heat up faster than the surrounding nature, they may be more easily detectable using thermal cameras. Mounting these sensors on drones also gives them a better point of view, and keeps sweepers from having to enter an unmapped minefield. But there’s still work to be done.

It was a record year for funding of landmine clearance, but casualties remain high.

Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor

Currently, the system relies on human observation to find the mines, which is subject to error and time consuming. Baur and Frazer want to use machine learning to make pinpoint mine location autonomously. It’s even possible that the system could make use of new autonomous drone technology, eliminating the need for a pilot.

If the Binghamton duo is successful, flocks of drones could aid the International Campaign to Ban Landmines’ effort to make the world landmine-free by 2025.