In peaceful areas of the world, 800 people per month die from landmines that have been forgotten after former conflicts. Bosnia, Cambodia, and Croatia top the list of countries where mine deaths are common, but the numbers are staggering: 110 million mines still exist in 64 countries.
One problem is that it costs much more to remove a mine than to plant one: to buy a mine costs $3 to $10, while removing one costs $300 to $1,000.
Help could be as close as a pocket, though: students at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw have developed an explosives detection app for smartphones. They call it SAPER, which stands for “Sensor Amplified Perception For Explosives Recognition.” The app harnesses the magnetometer—technology within all smartphones that runs the internal compass—to detect minute disturbances in the magnetic field around an explosive material. Forty different kinds of explosive materials can be sniffed out from a foot away.
The student team’s mentor says that the app is best used to assist in locating land mines when no other methods are available. Currently, minesweepers use many tools in order to accomplish their task, including trained animals (even dolphins are used to locate mines underwater) and metal detectors or vehicles with a wide variety of mechanical tools attached to them. There also are other methods developed to detect mines, including bacteria, acoustics, and other more exotic techniques.
Before the suspected area can be examined, the smartphone app calibrates to the environment. Then, the phone can be waved in the air as if painting a grid measuring a foot per side, around a foot away from the potential threat source (the distance can be increased with an outstretched arm, or with a stick, say the students, if you’re squeamish about getting too close to a deadly explosive device).
The app connects to a cloud-based server and compares the recorded magnetic disturbance signature with other signatures in the database. If a threat is detected, the app returns a warning message and identifies the likelihood of there being a certain type of explosive material in the sampled area. It uses GPS to pinpoint the site and to immediately alert the authorities. The threat alert message can also be automatically pushed to social networks.
SAPER is a finalist in Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition. The final contest will happen later this year in Sydney, Australia. This year’s theme asked students around the world to create technologies that would address tough global problems—including health, accessibility and environmental sustainability. Over the past 10 years, 1.65 million students from 190 countries have participated in the competition.
Although SAPER is currently only available on the Windows Phone operating system, the student-programmers hope to make it available on other platforms soon. The students also hope to include an external wireless magnetometer to allow for remote detection distance to be increased to a distance of three feet.