Space & Innovation

Flying Drone Exposes Hidden Landmines

Sweeping areas for landmines could become faster, easier, and safer with this new flying drone. Continue reading →

Landmine detection is dangerous but necessary work given the millions of active explosive devices still lying around just waiting to blow innocent people to bits. A sensor-laden drone being tested in the United Kingdom promises to make the process of clearing them out much faster - and safer.

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An unmanned arial vehicle created by University of Bristol scientists has special imaging technology onboard that can spot mines on the ground surface as well as old ones hidden in the dirt. Over time, explosive chemicals leach out of the landmine and gets picked up by foliage nearby. The drone's hyperspectral imaging reveals those subtle changes, which could help humans focus their clearing efforts, according to the university.

The drone is being developed for Find A Better Way, a nonprofit set up by former Manchester United soccer player Bobby Charlton in 2011 after he visited Cambodia and saw firsthand the havoc wreaked by landmines. His organization is collaborating with university researchers on tech-focused solutions for clearing the explosive devices.

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Recently the University of Bristol team, led by physicist John Day, went to Manchester United's home stadium, Old Trafford, for a test run. The researchers think their drone could drastically speed up the mine-clearing process. Usually it would take 10 humans two months to clear an area the same size as the stadium pitch, they told the BBC.

Nobody knows exactly how many landmines are actually out there because, as the United Nations points out, mined areas haven't all been identified and natural disasters can upend warning markers. That said, the humanitarian nonprofit Care estimates there are 110 million anti-personnel landmines on the ground. They kill thousands every year, PBS NewsHour reported.

"If we can take people out of the risk equation, and instead put in robots or drones, then that makes the whole thing safer," University of Bristol physicist Tom Scott said in a video about the project. "We don't want to see any extra loss of life." See the drone up close here:

The drone is just one tool in the larger kit that Find A Better Way is trying to create. Other projects the organization supports include affordable prosthetics and remote detection probes.

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I thought that we, as human beings, were going to stop putting landmines down. More than 150 countries already agreed to ban them. But the U.N. cited reports that new ones are appearing in Syria and other war-torn places. I just wish we didn't need Charlton's toolkit. At least we can see the goal.

Robots and drones get a bad rap sometimes, but there's an entire industry out there designing bots and UAVs specifically designed to save human lives. Here we take a look at some of these machines, including Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot -- pictured above. Like a hydraulic St. Bernard, the robot can deliver emergency supplies to remote or hazardous areas over rough terrain.

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Toshiba's custom-designed two-arm underwater robot was constructed for the express purpose of removing debris and fuel rods from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, destroyed by an earthquake in March of 2011.

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Drone Systems' Scout UAS is designed to be used by the first arriving units in emergency situations. It can be deployed in under two minutes to provide aerial view of disasters or wildfires.

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The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a hybrid aerial drone that can enter flaming skyscrapers and endure flames of more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. The bot can shift from flight mode to spider mode on its own, crawling up walls to navigate narrow spaces.

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S.W.A.R.M. (

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) is a volunteer network of drone owners that work with authorities in search-and-rescue scenarios. Coordinated drone searches are less expensive than piloted aircraft operations, and can cover larger areas. The group has more than 1,000 members in 42 countries.

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This concept UAV from industrial designers Frog Design can be deployed in skiing areas for both avalanche prevention and rescue. The drone could carry explosives to trigger controlled avalanches, or use its thermal cameras to locate people trapped under snow.

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Another concept UAV from Frog Design, the Firestorm uses an array of advanced sensors to move through burning buildings. Powerful LED lights and a short-wave bullhorn can be used to guide survivors to safety.

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Developed by a German nonprofit, the Defikopter is designed to deliver defibrillator units to victims in remote locations. The drone can be summoned by smartphone app and uses GPS coordinates to drop the defibrillator by parachute.

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From the Bristol-Oxford Nuclear Research Centre in England, the Airborne Radiation Mapping (AARM) drone carries special radiation detection payloads. Deployed into radioactive environments, the UAV can quickly determine whether a particular area is safe humans.

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Another innovative design from Boston Dynamics, the SandFlea can jump up to 30 feet in the air to overcome obstacles during reconnaissance missions. Onboard stabilizers keep the bot level while it's in flight, and the bot is accurate enough to jump directly into second- or third-floor windows.

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