On any given day, thousands of Cambodia’s deminers put on their protective gear and head out into forests and fields littered with weapons buried decades ago, still set to explode as soon as a person or vehicle presses down. They chop away at the vines and bushes that have grown over terrain on which one wrong step could be their last. Some use a machine designed for clearing vegetation, others use hand tools. Once the land is cleared of brush, they can begin the painstaking process of locating and removing bombs lying just centimetres beneath the surface.
Creeping along with a metal detector, they wait for a beep and leave a marker, knowing that at least nine times out of ten it’s going to be a harmless metal item that poses no danger to anyone. After combing the whole area, they delicately prod the area around each marker with a stick to check the size of the object found beneath the ground, before cautiously excavating anything that might be a landmine. If it is, they remove the detonator and place the mine along with the rest of the day’s haul in a pile that will eventually be exploded.
It is dangerous, painstaking work that deserves great applause but, amid rapid innovations in other fields, there must be a better way to get it done – or at least that is the notion driving Richard Yim.
An engineering graduate from the University of Waterloo in Canada, Yim’s first encounter with landmines came when he was eight years old and growing up in Phnom Penh, when his aunt died after stepping on one of the fist-sized devices. A decade later, and halfway around the world in Canada, he started the Landmine Boys, a company rebranded this month as Demine Robotics, which is developing technology meant to help eradicate landmines with minimal human exposure to the explosive devices.
“This is for the country, this is for the world, this is for those countries that still have landmines and the thousands of people who suffer because of landmines and the millions more who are restricted of land and denied the ability to take part in agricultural activities because of landmines,” Yim said.
Drawing on his technical expertise, Yim created two machines to enter the demining process in place of humans. One is designed with arms that plunge under a mine to lift it out of the ground, uncovering the detonator for the second machine, which pinches and disables the trigger before slicing into the mine and melting the explosive material inside.
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