Maki Habib, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Robotics, Control and Smart Systems graduate program at The American University in Cairo (AUC) has been working for the past four years as advisory board member and researcher in the TIRAMISU European project, which addresses the need for integrating different technologies to build a global toolbox for demining practices worldwide. Landmines and explosive remnants of war pose a threat not only to Egypt, but more than 80 countries worldwide. “Landmines are prominent weapons,” said Habib, who established a concentration in mechatronics as part of AUC’s Mechanical Engineering program. “They are so effective, yet so cheap, and easy to make and lay.”According to Habib, the project aims to provide the foundation for a global toolbox that would cover the main UN Mine Action activities, from the survey of large areas to the actual disposal of explosive hazards, including Mine Risk Education. “The toolbox produced by the project provides Mine Action actors with a large set of tools, grouped into thematic modules, which helps them perform their jobs better. These tools are designed with the help of end-users and validated by them in mine-affected countries,” he said.
One of these tools is the use of robots to clear landmines. “Robotization accelerates the demining process and avoids having deminers in direct physical contact with the mines,” Habib said.
Habib explained that the north coast is heavily mined from World War II, largely as a result of fighting that took place between Germany and Britain. “This is a good region for development, but this development is being delayed because old and unsophisticated landmines remain in the region and the changing levels of sand cause the mines to be pushed deeper and deeper below the earth.”
Habib has made advancements in robotics for demining. “Most countries afflicted with landmines are poor, and the technical know-how is not high. Lightweight and portable robots are the one type of technology that enables residents to use it easily, while at the same time keeping in mind the use of local resources in developing it,” noted Habib, whose work in robotics has not only helped in demining, but also aided the elderly and individuals with special needs.
The first demining robot Habib helped develop was a multi-mode, low-cost mobile robot, PEMEX-B, with mountain bicycle wheels that could be adapted to local material such as bamboo or any suitable local resources.
In many developed countries, Habib explained, researchers have created highly logistical, expensive technology that not always works as required. “Any minor damage to these robots affects their efficacy, and maintaining them is difficult, so you end up losing a lot of money,” he noted. “That is why it is important to use inexpensive, local resources while properly protecting the sensing and decision-making components.”
In addition to utilizing local resources, robots involved in demining must have “intelligent and flexible mechanisms,” Habib affirmed. “They must be able to learn from experience, their movements must be controlled, and they should have sensors to ensure safety. Sensors are the most effective tools supporting the robotization of the demining process.”
Demining robots must also have the capability to move through a muddy, sandy, rocky or grassy area, and even a forest. For that purpose, Habib developed navigation systems with obstacle-avoidance techniques that enable the robot to avoid obstacles blocking its path, navigate to effectively search the mined area in order to map any detected mine, ensure area coverage and communicate the necessary information as required. He also developed a heterogeneous, multi-robotic system that enables different robots to coordinate and cooperate in navigating mined areas –– searching, marking and mapping wide mine fields.
While no single country afflicted with landmines is currently declared mine-free, Habib’s work continues in an effort to build a global database of technology in the fight against destructive mines. “The tools we are devising represent a step forward in forming a unified, comprehensive and modular integrated solution for the clearing of large areas from explosive hazards,” he said.
Humanitarian demining is a critical first step for reconstruction of post-conflict countries, Habib explained. The primary goal of demining is the total clearance of land from all types of mines and unexploded ordnance.
However, a number of difficulties plague the demining process. First, afflicted countries have landmines that date back to World War I and most of these countries do not have the economic infrastructure or logistics to organize for removing these landmines.
Demining technology also has to account for issues with sensing mines as there will likely be other exploded material fragments lodged in the land. “This creates problems for basic metal detectors, as they will pick up on metal shrapnel and assume them to be mines. And this does not even touch on the issue of other types of mines, for example those with plastic or wooden casing where the triggers are very small pieces of metal.”
Another challenge is that landmines can be literally found anywhere, at the seashore, in agricultural land, under normal cities, in residential areas, in the desert –– you name it,” Habib said. “What kind of technology can accommodate all of these different terrains? A single solution does not exist. Many UN Mine Action participants have called for a global toolbox from which they could choose the tools best fit to a given situation.”