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Developing Technologies to Detect Landmines in Lebanon

By Lynn Mahoney

Years of conflict left southern Lebanon littered with undetected and unmarked landmines. Now, a team of AUB faculty is developing an infra-red imaging
system to detect landmines more safely and efficiently—in Lebanon, and across the globe.

“Following the liberation of Southern Lebanon, it is estimated there are as many as 400,000 landmines in the area. These are dense minefields, mostly near the international border,” explains Samer Abdallah, assistant professor of mechanical engineering.
“At AUB we are creating advanced technologies to detect buried landmines, which we hope will ultimately encourage economic prosperity and peace in the area.”

Professor Abdallah describes the objective of
the De-mining Technology Team at AUB (DeTecT@AUB): “The aim of this project is to develop a fast, reliable, remote mine-detection technology based on infra-red imaging.” Nesreen Ghaddar, chair and professor of mechanical engineering, adds, “It is important to keep in mind that once these areas are free from these explosive devices, displaced people can be resettled, agricultural areas recultivated, and the infrastructure reestablished for the overall development of the country. As faculty members of AUB we want
to create technologies that not only help the people of Lebanon, but can be shared with other countries to combat the devastating problem of landmines.”

DeTecT@AUB is a multi-disciplinary team founded in 2001 with the mission of establishing a comprehensive research and development program to evaluate and implement applicable landmine detection technologies. The team is composed of six mechanical engineering professors: Samer Abdallah, Nesreen Ghaddar, Kinda Khalaf, Fadl Moukalled, Alan Shihadeh, and Ahmed Smaili who are experts in computational fluid dynamics and heat transfer, computer vision, robotics, and mechatronics. Also joining the team is Professor Zouheir Fawaz of Ryerson University in Canada, an expert in infra-red imaging and thermography.
Lebanon is one of the many countries afflicted with minefields, with the majority concentrated in Southern Lebanon as a consequence of over 20 years of conflict. Following the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the South in May 2000, the Landmine Resource Center at the University of Balamand estimated the total number of mines at 150,000. Since then, more landmines have been discovered throughout the region from Ras Naqoura to Shabba on Mount Hermon, and the figure has more than doubled. The center also reports in a 2002 report that the number of landmine victims is 2,757, of which 206 (including deaths and injuries) occurred between May 2000 and May 2002. More causalties are a weekly occurrence, many being children who wander into the dangerous areas.

The prevalence of mines has also resulted in socio-economic problems. Resettlement of the displaced people of the South has been slowed because of safety concerns; commerce is stalled due to lack of markets, poor investment opportunities, and weak infrastructures; and agricultural development is hindered because landmines are often buried in crop areas. In 1998, with the assistance of the US government, the Lebanese government established the National De-mining Office (NDO) as part of its military, which now handles all de-mining operations.

In 2001 the Lebanese government signed Operation Emirates Solidarity (OES), a memorandum of understanding with the United Arab Emirates. The objective of this cooperative effort is to clear several Southern Lebanese towns and villages of booby-trap devices and landmines. Carrying out the mission of OES is the Mine Action Co-ordination Center in Southern Lebanon (MACC SL) whose role is to coordinate mine clearance in the South and ensure that it is
carried out in accordance with the International Mine Action Standards.

DeTecT@AUB collaborates with the NDO and MACC SL to validate and implement the developed IR sensing technology. “Currently most landmines are detected by using hand-held metal detectors and manual prodding. These methods are slow, labor intensive and dangerous,” explains Ghaddar. “False alarms are frequent because of the detectors’ sensitivity to trace elements of metal and debris in the soil,” adds Abdallah. The rocky, rigid, mountainous terrain and the effects of weather on the soil pose additional complications to detect landmines with the hand-held metal detector. Most importantly, de-mining using metal detectors and prodders pose a grave threat to de-miners who routinely suffer from accidents.

Studies on the use of infra-red technology in detecting landmines show it is a more effective tool. “Some of the key advantages of remotely deploying the IR imaging system (IRIS) system are enhanced safety, speed, and accuracy,” explains Khalaf.

The DeTecT@AUB project consists of two stages. The first, which is underway, is to implement an infra-red imaging system (IRIS) and to adapt this system to the environmental and terrain parameters specific
to Lebanon. During the second stage, a low flying Remote-Controlled Aerial Porter
(R-CAP) developed at AUB is a prototype to carry the IRIS. Furthermore, a Remote-Controlled Ground Vehicle (R-CGV) will also be adapted to carry the IRIS for close-up forward looking. The porters will also house the data acquisition package that will be used to acquire and store the IR images. Those images will subsequently be analyzed using a computerized image analysis system specifically developed for this purpose.

The team involves Engineering graduate
students and seniors. “Our students are of high caliber and bring much involvement and commitment to the project,” says Ghaddar. However, she notes that to complete its research, DeTecT@AUB is in need
of more funds.

“The successful completion of the project,” says Ghaddar, “will enable Lebanon to have custom-made locally developed tools and expertise to tackle the landmine problem safely and efficiently. In addition, Lebanon will in particular be able to share the developed system, once validated, with other
countries suffering from the same problem. This should bring substantial economic
benefits to Lebanon.”