Stamping Out Mines

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Bigfoot and Mineworm sound like cartoon characters. They are, in fact, the names of two mechanical giants designed to make people safer from the estimated 60 million land mines scattered around the world. Working in tandem, the pair destroy mines in ways that are faster and safer and more ecofriendly and cost-effective than any system to date.

"By the end of this year," says inventor Bob French, "we will have the first two machines in Bosnia-Herzegovina." There, with the continued assistance of the British government's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (dera), Bigfoot and Mineworm will help to destroy some of the estimated 1 million mines left over from the 1992-95 war. Mines continue to kill up to 10 people there each month.

The idea for Bigfoot and Mineworm began in early 1997, when Leicestershire-based French watched a television report of the Princess of Wales' trip to central Angola. As Diana inspected a minefield, wearing a flak jacket and face shield, French's eye was drawn to those working nearby. "People were poking sticks in the ground," he recalls, using the same mine-clearance methods he saw during his Royal Air Force service decades earlier, in Borneo and Sarawak.

"Mines are unsophisticated weapons and they need an unsophisticated method of dealing with them," says French, who has a broad industrial background in electronics. After research and consultation with mine clearers, he concluded that two remote-controlled and camera-equipped machines were needed. The first, Bigfoot, has piston-driven armored feet that stamp every square centimeter of ground that the machine passes over, detonating any mines. Bigfoot has no need of minefield maps, and its system of shock absorption, blast deflection and energy dissipation prevents damage from antipersonnel devices. If larger, antitank mines damage one of the feet, a replacement can be installed in the field.

Trailing in Bigfoot's wake, Mineworm excavates up to 55 cm of soil. It removes and crushes all unexploded ordnance, including faulty mines, sorts out ferrous metal for further inspection and unlike its heavier military predecessors returns noncompacted soil to the ground, allowing crop planting and growth. Having passed initial tests in the U.K., the 5-ton prototypes of French's Land Mine Disposal System (LMDS) are being fined-tuned to make them smaller so they can be more easily transported and maneuvered on country roads and bridges. After a three-month field trial in Bosnia in which teams of mine clearers using dogs will follow the machines to verify that nothing is missed they are expected to remain at work there. "It's pretty certain that the prototype does what Bob says it will," says Colin Lowe, project manager for dera's Countermine Warfare Research Team, which oversaw two weeks of trials on sandy hills, clay soil and mud in England. "No one machine is going to clear the world of mines," says Lowe, but French's system takes a "golf-bag approach," using different tools for different tasks on different terrains. Pat Banks, an independent land mines consultant working in Bosnia where fewer than 60 sq km were cleared last year considers the machines "absolutely essential." Depending on terrain, they can clear up to 500 sq m in an hour; a human team could cover perhaps 200 sq m in a day.

Initial development funds for French's prototypes came from a business friend, Rupert King. Today, the LMDS is supported by Redbus Investments, set up in 1998 by entrepreneur Cliff Stanford. "This British solution to a global tragedy is testament to the wealth of innovation that exists in this country," Stanford says. "We now need governments and aid agencies to come on board and get Bigfoot and Mineworm in the field." Given the speed at which the LMDS can clear mines, French argues, international donors such as the European Union, the U.S. and Canada "would get more for their aid dollars." The cost of the two machines plus attachments, spare parts, training and field support would be about $750,000 in the first year, he says, but then would drop to about $300,000.

While Bigfoot and Mineworm are being prepared for Bosnia, French is making his own plans. He wants to play football with local children in a field that his machines have made safe. Even farther down that unmined road, he says, he'd like to go out of business in a world that no longer has any land mines.