mine detection drone Laos

FABW mine-detection drone expert visits Laos

Expert drone pilot and Research Associate John Fardoulis, from the Find A Better Way-funded Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for Landmine Detection project at the University of Bristol, returned this week from a fact-finding in Laos.

Drone at Old TraffordJohn famously flew his mapping drone live on BBC Breakfast on the Old Trafford pitch last April to mark International Mine Awareness Day. Exciting as this was, John is always keen to get first-hand experience of terrain more likely to hold unexploded ordinance (UXO) than the manicured turf of the ‘Theatre of Dreams.’

Over five days in southern Laos, John was able to visit seven different areas contaminated by UXO and spend time with an active demolition team. He was repeatedly surprised to see that deminers were not working in isolated, remote locations, but around cultivated farmland.

‘In the Sepon area of Laos where I was visiting there is a lot of pressure for food and housing,’ he explained. ‘Laos is the most bombed country in history, so much of the arable farmland is contaminated. I was still a shock to see farmers tilling the land and growing crops in areas that have not been cleared yet. It says a lot about the lasting damage mines and UXO cause decades after a conflict is over that people are forced to take that risk.’

The area John visited is especially plagued by undetonated ‘submunitions’ – tennis-ball sized metal bombs that are distributed by what are commonly called ‘cluster bombs.’ Although designed to detonate on impact, up to 45% of submunitions from a cluster bomb can fail to go off. Of the approximately 45 casualties from landmines and UXO in Laos every year, roughly half are from undetonated submunitions.

Besides mapping, the Bristol project hopes to use infrared light to detect surface UXO, and possibly even buried UXO in future.

‘Vegetation looks lighter under infrared displays,’ John explained,’ whereas man-made materials like metal and plastic tend to appear darker. Using drones to find mines and UXO on the surface is a first step.

‘Ultimately we are hoping to use infrared light to spot vegetation that has been contaminated by explosive material. Mines and submunitions tend to leech chemicals into the soil over decades. When these are absorbed by plants it could, in theory, show us areas of contamination using the drone. The science in this area is not as well developed as we would like at this point, so we’re doing our best to take it a step further.’

Find A Better Way CEO Lou McGrath OBE is very pleased John has had the chance to get first-hand experience in Laos. ‘At Find A Better Way we believe it’s essential our research is conducted with regular input from the demining community. We want to put better tools into the hands of deminers, but it is essential they are designed with their needs in mind. Keeping communication going is essential.’