Drones aim to undo Ukraine's landmine problem

Draganfly aims to help clear invaded nation of deadly devices

Feature In late April, representatives of Canada-based industrial drone firm Draganfly are scheduled to demonstrate how the company's Commander 3 XL drone can be used to map the location of landmines in Ukraine.

Ukraine is among the most heavily mined countries in the world and its Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources estimated that 27 percent of the country – about 160,000 square kilometers – will need to be cleared of landmines and unexploded ordnance. In January, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal told South Korean news agency Yonhap that 40 percent of the country – about 250,000 square kilometers – is currently sown with landmines.

According to the US State Department, "These explosive hazards block access to farmland, delay or otherwise harm reconstruction efforts, and prevent displaced people from returning to their homes. They may also continue to kill and maim Ukrainian civilians for years to come."

The Register spoke with Draganfly CEO Cameron Chell about how the company's drones are helping with demining operations.

In a phone interview, Chell said that the 25-year-old company had taken off when aviation regulators adopted rules for operating drones beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).

"Of course, Ukraine has changed everything as it relates to small Unmanned Aircraft System," said Chell.

Draganfly serves a variety of industries but the company's strength has been in public service and public safety. "As of 2013, the first drone that was credited with saving human life was a Draganfly," he said. "And that drone sits in the Smithsonian today on permanent display."

As a result of that work, he said, the company had the opportunity to go into Ukraine to help with medical delivery – transporting medical supplies via drone in conflict zones.

"An NGO had bought a bunch of ambulances and they couldn't get them into these besieged cities," Chell explained. "So they came to us asking about being able to do delivery with drones."

From there, Draganfly got involved in other missions, one of which is landmine detection.

Image of a Draganfly Commander 3 XL drone in flight

"We work with a number of the leading demining organizations that are funded by different European entities and the State Department in particular," said Chell. "And we fly drones for them using different types of sensors, primarily thermal and hyperspectral, but also magnetometers. And we map the area before the demining crews go in."

Chell said different sensors are appropriate for different mines. When looking for metal – which may be unexploded ordnance, a mine, or a buried vehicle component – the drone relies on a magnetometer. For plastic, a thermal sensor is used.

"We'll do readings in the morning and then readings in the afternoon and then look at the temperature differences," he said. "Then we'll use hyperspectral to look at all the rest of the the elements of the landscape – where are there are paths, where trenching has been dug, where there's additional equipment or foliage that's been disturbed – and then we relate all that information to the demining crews."

Armed with this data, the demining crews can operate more safely and know where they don't need to look.

"In Ukraine right now, they know there're mines and there're only so many resources," said Chell. "So they want to maximize those resources to be in areas that are most critical."

The goal at the moment is not to identify every single mine with 100 percent certainty. "We'll get there," he said. "What they're really trying to do right now is use the sensors on drones to determine where [the demining crews] need to spend their time."

We note Ukraine has been accused of making illegal use of mines on its home soil. The nation's leaders, meanwhile, say Russia created the world's largest minefield in Ukraine after invading the country about a year ago.

A tricky, but necessary job

The way Draganfly's drone gets flown depends on the type of sensors being employed. The hyperspectral sensor – for capturing electromagnetic radiation beyond just the visible part of the spectrum – is used to get an overview of the landscape, so it gets flown at altitudes generally ranging from 40 to 400 feet.

Chell said there are a lot of variables that need to be considered. "If you're in an area where you've got very rich mineralized soils, your magnetometer [and other equipment] need to be adjusted accordingly," he said."It is becoming very, very scientific, but there's still a little bit of art involved."

Fortunately, those flying Draganfly drones in Ukraine haven't had to worry about being fired on. "We expect that that could be the case but most of the demining work right now is focused on reclamation of agricultural land to try to get food productivity back up," Chell said.

But as more personnel get trained, the Ukrainians are looking to move demining operations closer to the front lines, to help support resupply operations, for example. But even in areas without active conflict, operating a drone requires coordination to avoid friendly fire.

"Coordinating drone activities, really, it is tricky because even locals, you know, they hear a drone, they see the drone, they want to know what the drone is being used for," Chell explained. "So there's lots of tricky work that has to be done regardless."

About half of flight operations can be automated, said Chell, because they involve flying a simple pattern over an open area. For more complicated topography, particularly areas with foliage, manual piloting is preferred, even though drones do have decent sense-and-avoid equipment to prevent collisions.

"The processing is all automated," said Chell. "But the interpretation right now is still left to humans. We're developing an AI model… the effectiveness seems to be really coming along but nobody at this point is willing to risk life based on that."

Looking ahead, Chell expects automated tools will become more relevant for data analysis – spotting possible mines. "But the analysis is 100 percent human right now," he said.

Asked about mining finding accuracy and false positives, Chell said, "I would suggest that about 90 percent of everything that we can see and identify is positively identified. In terms of false false positives, how that's even defined right now is still a little bit in question. Is a false positive a little piece of tractor iron that's underground? It's not a mine, but you don't want to miss those types of things."

Chell said there are some people in the business who make wild claims about being able to find everything, but the professional demining groups aren't focused on statistics. Rather, he said, they want to use drones as a tool that makes their existing processes better.

"Ninety percent accuracy is wildly far from being able to call this fully automated," he said. "Even 99.999 percent isn't accurate enough."

The human part of this process continues to be incredibly important, said Chell. The best drone pilots for these missions are the one who have had first-hand experience with minefields in combat. "The combat drone pilots really do have a sense of why [a mine] was put in a particular area … they kind of know what to look for," he said.

Looking ahead, Chell said in the next 18 months or so, demining missions are likely to move from a metal detector model – a person carrying a detector over the ground – to a drone swarm model. He predicted deminers will "have a fleet of drones that's going out and taking everything from LIDAR to hyperspectral to metal detection to magnetometer to soil sampling – all kinds of things – and it will take probably 15 different sensors to get things to … where you can demine in a day rather than a quarter."

There's also a need for sensors to detect depleted uranium and unexploded ordnance. "About 20 percent of even just regular shells that are shot from the Russian side don't explode because they're vintage – they're from the Cold War era," Chell said.

"There're gonna be a lot of really innovative sensors integrated, everything from satellites down to weather data, that will be incorporated into how demining will be done in the near future," he said.

"It's gonna take 40 to 50 years to demine Ukraine alone," said Chell, "and so every day of war is another 30 plus days of demining work. In terms of helping the country get back to productivity on an agricultural level and on a humanitarian level, this is a crucial, crucial initiative. So we're excited to be involved and supportive of everybody just trying to help." ®

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