The Israeli No 4 landmine has a peculiar design – approach it the right way, and it can be easily neutralized and destroyed. Approach it the wrong way, and things could go terribly wrong, very quickly.
A de-miner is on Lebanon’s infamous Blue Line, working carefully and purposefully, to detect and clear a line of landmines, which are indicated on a map. Set precisely at a meter apart, the landmines are an imposing barrier.
They were placed there many years ago, so some have sunk deep, some have risen to be partially exposed, and some have been covered entirely by the natural shifting of the land.
Slowly and carefully, you are excavating the soil toward it, when – disaster. The mine explodes. Something went wrong, terribly wrong.
Normally a tragic event, but on this day no-one is hurt – the entire exercise was carried out in a temperature-controlled, indoor virtual-reality environment, designed by the Beirut Research and Innovation Center (BRIC).
Established by Professor Hassan Ghaziri, an expert in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and in collaboration with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the Lebanese Mine Action Center (LMAC), this small research group is dedicated to developing leading-edge technologies – in this case, humanitarian de-mining systems that could drastically improve education and training, making the entire process much safer, faster and less expensive.
“The idea was to put together a critical mass of researchers to work on issues and problems that are related to the needs of regional and Lebanese societies,” Ghaziri said.
“Not to do research for academic purposes, but to develop real products, prototypes, at a lower cost, working hand in hand with the stakeholders, with experts and international institutions,” he said, adding that the group is also involved in medical research.
“We were able to put in place a structure and entity that is able to work together to develop something – this is extremely important … the spirit of bringing together [people] in a simple way, because in universities it is a little more difficult to make people from different areas and different universities work together.
“We’re kind of a neutral place where people can can come from anywhere.”
“This issue is of great importance for Lebanon, as a huge amount of Lebanese territory is contaminated with landmines,” Ghaziri said.
In addition to the virtual reality training program, BRIC is developing a cost-effective prototype De-mining Monitoring System (DMS), which involves high-tech wireless cameras worn by the de-miner, streaming live to a base station or central supervisor.
Using mostly Chinese components to control costs, the system allows the central supervisor to monitor several de-miners at a location in real time, potentially anywhere in the world. The supervisor does not interact with the de-miner – this is forbidden under protocol – but can monitor the real-time mine action.
More important, not only are they facilitating the streaming of data, they are also storing it for future use. Normally, a de-mining accident leaves only a troubling report, and there is no way to know exactly what went wrong. Now, using DMS, de-mining accidents can be investigated, improving the process and thereby saving lives.
Utilizing “smart” metal detectors and ground-penetrating radar with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities, the database helps classify mine types common to the region, aiding in the development of strong expertise in electromagnetic technology and sciences.
The system may also have applications for clearing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have actually overtaken landmines in recorded deaths and injuries.
According to LMAC, the Lebanese mine problem can be divided into three phases. The first phase dates back prior to 1975, the year the civil war (1975-1990) began, during which two Israeli invasions (1978, 1982) occurred. The Lebanese territories were littered with about 100,000 mines and an alarmingly large number of unexploded ordnance.
The second phase began in 2000 when Israel withdrew from South Lebanon after a 12-year occupation, leaving more than 550,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines in the South and Western Bekaa.
In mid-2006, optimism to achieve an impact-free state came to an abrupt end when Israel bombarded South Lebanon with more than 4 million cluster munitions, contaminating about 54.9 square kilometers of land and affecting more than a million people (one-third of the population).
With cluster-bomb contamination, Lebanon entered the third phase in its history of mines. The estimated 1 million cluster munitions that did not detonate are an ongoing threat to civilians, denying access to valuable agricultural land.
In an effort to counter this threat, another aspect of BRIC’s work is educational, said Mohammed Husseini, a senior researcher and part of the team.
Unexploded cluster bombs are a particular problem – with children often identifying them as toys, picking them up, or even playing catch, often with deadly consequences.
“Now we can produce a game that is also educational,” Husseini said. “We can tell kids about the mines, so if they see something unusual, they can learn to avoid it.”
Again, limiting costs was crucial to the project – the virtual-reality training program was developed with the expertise of fellow researcher Mohammed Baydoun, who just happens to be an avid gamer. Baydoun built the simulation by utilizing an app used to create video games.
“We thought of using virtual reality to make training the de-miner an easier process that can be performed without going to the field,” Baydoun said.
“Unreal Engine is one of the popular and free game-development engines that is being used for creating VR games and applications, so we developed our training application using UE.
“VR needs to mimic the aspects of the real scenario to have a better training for the de-miner, so we tried to achieve this as close as possible.
“Our main concentration was on mimicking the metal-detector de-mining process, whether it was the method of carrying the metal detector or the sound it emitted.”
Drone communication technology was also swapped out, to be replaced by TV streaming technology– a much cheaper option. Camera placement was also moved from the helmet to a less cumbersome shoulder harness, with memory chip and battery pack set behind the user’s back.
The intention is to protect the data in case of accident. The de-miner also wears personal protective equipment (PPE), a heavy Kevlar vest and safety helmet with a mask. The vest is designed with a blast deflector, to force any explosion upward.
Funding limitations have forced the group not only to become creative, but also to expand their area of expertise, Ghaziri said.
‘Struggling with financing’
“Because we are in Lebanon, of course we’re struggling with financing … had we had the opportunity to convince people, we would have been able to complete all these projects very quickly … much faster than the situation we are facing,” he said.
“Besides the de-mining … we have started to apply our machine learning expertise in health care, in cardiology and neurology, to aid in non-invasive diagnosis.”
The group is also actively seeking potential ties with research centers in China, in hopes of netting a share of the pending AI boom.
“I know that China is investing tremendously in AI, it is one of their strategic areas, and they are aiming to become the first nation in the world in AI. We would be very happy to participate in a small way, in that development,” Ghaziri said.
“At a certain point, we will definitely need good contacts with some Chinese companies to develop components of some of the prototypes we are working on.”
According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, the estimated number of casualties in 2017 was 7,239, of which 2,793 were killed, 4,431 injured and 15 unknown. The majority of the victims were civilians, nearly half of whom were children.
The high casualty rate was influenced by countries facing armed conflict, particularly Afghanistan and Syria, as well as Ukraine, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria, Myanmar, Libya and Yemen.
One encouraging statistic – in 2017, more than 168,000 antipersonnel mines and some 7,500 anti-vehicle mines were destroyed.
Ghaziri stressed that the DMS system, already in its third prototype, is not meant to replace de-miners, but rather to help them in their painstakingly difficult work.
“There’s no intent to replace them, it’s just a new way to provide them with a sophisticated technique, to help them and support them, because we are living in a world that is more and more sophisticated.”