New drone tech can quickly detect unexploded ordnance after an armed conflict

January 31, 2020
UXO detection | Aeromagnetic survey | Drones

New drone tech can quickly detect unexploded ordnance after an armed conflict. Review about the unmanned aeromagnetic system on Popular Mechanics by science writer Sarah Derouin.

UMT team was very excited to see published about our unmanned system in one of the best engineering media. “Popular mechanics” paid attention to scientific and technology sides of the UXO detection solution by Binghamton geophysics researchers squad and UMT UAV engineers and drone pilots.

UXO detection solution based on long-range UAV and revolutionary microfabricated magnetometer(MFAM) by Geometrics. The long flight time of drone allows operated unmanned aeromagnetic mission on very large areas and with high data acquisition efficiency 

We very much appreciate the work of article author Sarah Derouin and we want to share a few quotes from this great article.

“There’s this kind of evolutionary moment when the two technologies are meeting for the first time—the miniaturization of sensors and the dependability of drones,” says lead study author Alex Nikulin, a geophysicist and Binghamton University professor. “The union of those two things changes the game.”

Truck-launched missiles spray across a 600-meter-wide area, says Nikulin, compared to a single location. And the targets move. “For example, if you have a checkpoint that is in one place this week, next week it’s someplace else,” he says.

Shelling can be almost continuous, but not every missile explodes. Out of this barrage, Nikulin says anywhere from 20 to 40 percent (and as high as 80 percent, depending on the quality of the missile) of the explosives can fail to detonate.

Different countries make better or lower quality ordinances,” says the study’s coauthor, Timothy de Smet, also a geophysicist and professor at Binghamton. He says some fighters get knockoff missiles or raid stockpiles that can be more than 30 years old—and explosion rates can plummet as the missiles wear down with time.

But drone flights are notoriously short, making surveys difficult. “The big problem we ran into was when we started this was battery life,” says Nikulin. He notes that prior drones—from inexpensive to premium—had short, 15- to 20-minute flight times. “We can’t use those drones for wide service areas.”

Enter the Ukrainian company UMT, which developed a hybrid drone called Cicada that can stay in the air for three hours. Nikulin says they read about the new drone, wrote the company, and ended up collaborating on the new study with the UMT engineers to find UXO.

“Geophysical methods can be very effective for UXO detection,” says Andrei Swidinsky, a geophysicist at Colorado School of Mines who wasn’t involved in the study. “Several methods operate in principles similar to airport metal detectors, and as such are sensitive to UXO that may be present in post-conflict zones.”

“A major challenge [in geophysical surveys] is to classify and discriminate ‎UXO from background clutter (scrap metal etc.), to prevent unnecessary remediation efforts,” says Swidinsky.

Objects lose their magnetic signal quickly with distance, he says, so there’s a sweet spot for finding a 3-meter missile. “Everything that’s smaller than the object you’re looking for disappears,” says de Smet. “You’re using the altitude as a low-pass filter.”

The long flight time, paired with keyed-in elevation, meant the time got a map of the ordinances in short order—an entire field of data within 45 minutes. Nikulin says he and his team want their technique to be usable on the ground. “Our entire idea is you basically open up a laptop and in five minutes you have an actionable map.”

“Using an autonomous platform allows large areas to be quickly surveyed at low cost, and minimal risk to operators,” says Swidinsky. He notes that drone-based geophysics has moved past experimental stages and is now a routine approach.

Since the field test, the team has been certified for IMAS, or the International Mine Action Standards Certification. The scientists’ method is now certified for a wide area technical survey, which is essentially confirming the absence of the presence of a threat. “Then you as the stakeholder, the government regulator, the emergency ministry, the humanitarian organization, can use that data to plan your work,” says Nikulin.

As for finding UXO, Nikulin says this as far as the scientists can go. “Now,” de Smet echoes, “we hand it over to non-governmental organizations.”


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