Tim Bechtel, a Franklin & Marshall College visiting professor, calls land mines a “really grim evil.”
Yes, the devices can kill, but their intent is more diabolical.
“If you kill a combatant, that person is no longer fighting. But if you blow off their leg or wound them horribly, that person is no longer fighting and it requires a team of people to care for that person,” Bechtel said.
Millions of them are scattered about active and former war zones. At the current rate they are being cleared, it will take 1,100 years to remove them, according to the United Nations.
And that’s if no more land mines were to be placed, Bechtel said.
Bechtel, a geosciences professor, is working with an international team to develop a cheap and effective way to detect land mines in Ukraine, where Russia and Ukrainian separatists are fighting.
“Both sides are using land mines. So when this thing is over, the breadbasket of Europe ... is going to have land mines, so we’re preparing to deal with that,” Bechtel said.
The team, which includes researchers from Ukraine and Italy, recently received a 3-year, several million dollar grant from NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Program for the project.
Bechtel, of Lancaster Township, has been applying his geoscience background to land mine detection for about 15 years.
Typical geoscience work has applications such as mining and construction, he explained.
Geoscience: Radiology on the earth
“I do radiology. Only I do it to the earth instead of people,” he said.
Enviroscan Inc., his wife, Felicia Bechtel’s company, which specializes in geophysics, is also underwriting the work.
For the project, Bechtel and other researchers want to build a low-cost robotic device outfitted with sensors to detect land mines.
Bechtel’s team will use impulse radar and holographic radar to essentially look into the ground and build a picture of the mines.
Doing so will also let whoever will ultimately clear the mines know what they’re up against. Modern land mines contain little metal, making metal detectors alone impractical.
While some land mines can be removed and exploded with other similar mines — a cost-effective method — many land mines have anti-tampering devices and must be detonated in place, Bechtel said.
Danger posed by land mines and their potential to maim and kill remains long after fighting is over. Most victims are civilians, Bechtel said.
Personal connection for researcher
In January, Bechtel and Nina Simic, a recent F&M graduate and Manheim Township High School alumna who’s helping on the project, will travel to Ukraine to test its soil.
Along the way, Simic, a Bosnia native, will visit Bosnia to talk to people who clear land mines there to ask for a wish list of what they’d want in a detection system.
Her father was a soldier in Bosnia.
“We needed to leave. The situation was really terrible over there,” said Simic, who came to America with her family when she was 2.
Knowing the soil conditions in the Ukrainian conflict zone will help Bechtel be able to test in similar conditions here.
The conflict zone is similar to northeastern Pennsylvania’s coal mining regions, Bechtel said. His team will plant inert mines and test the sensors.
Ultimately, Bechtel and Simic envision whatever the researchers develop can be used elsewhere.
“I think demining is not only important in Ukraine in the moment but ... what we’re creating with other scientists involved is going to be beneficial not only to Ukraine, but to demining in general,” Simic said.
There’s plenty of need. Bechtel said about 80 countries have a land mine infestation of some degree.
“We want to design a device that can speed up (the U.N.) clearance rate” of 1,100 years, he said, “But we have the whole world in mind for the end user.”