The Create the Future Design Contest was launched in 2002 by NASA Tech Briefs magazine publishers, recognizing engineering innovation. First place for the 2018 aerospace and defense category was awarded to a Binghamton University, State University of New York team for their project that uses drones to locate dangerous land mines.
The accolades go to Binghamton students Jasper Baur and William Frazer, who worked with Alex Nikulin, assistant professor of geological sciences, and Timothy de Smet, research assistant professor with Binghamton’s Freshman Research Immersion program.
Concealed underground, land mines are explosive devices designed to hinder enemy targets, from combatants to vehicles. The system focuses on plastic land mine detection with thermal imaging technology attached to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
“Our submission was a description of how we attach thermal cameras to drones and fly over to detect plastic land mines based on heat differences between the surrounding environment and the mine,” Baur says.
The Binghamton team narrowed in on PFM-1 land mines in particular, “which were a Soviet design used in the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan in the late 20th century,” according to the university.
As mentioned in the project’s description, there are an estimated 10 million PFM-1 devices dispersed throughout Afghanistan. The small explosives detonate after a certain amount of pressure is applied, and their plastic design makes detection difficult.
“Their entire bodies are made out of plastic, where the more traditional land mine has some sort of metallic casing that can be detected with electromagnetic methods very easily,” says Frazer. “They are also difficult to find because a plastic land mine can be as small as your iPhone, or even smaller.”
The project showed that PFM-1 land mines have a distinguishable thermal difference from the surrounding environment, which aided the UAVs packed with thermal imaging equipment.
Environmental conditions, the optimal time of day for data collection, and other variables were tested in pilot studies. “Additionally, we have conducted field trials of our method by randomly dispersing 18 mines along with the aluminum KSF-1 casing to mimic an ellipsoidal minefield of 8-10 x 18-20 m simulating the mountainous Afghanistan terrain where most of the unexploded PFM-1 mines reside,” according to the researchers.
Results were promising, with the “FLIR Vue Pro R attached to the 3DR Solo UAV” locating land mines during multiple thermal infrared imagery data sets while flying 10 m in the air.
“Because the mines have different physical properties like reflectance, emissivity, and thermal conductivity, they heat and cool at different rate than the host geology. In the early morning hours, when thermal inertia is greatest, the PFM-1 mines can be detected based on their differential thermal inertia,” the researchers say.
Although their project recently earned the top prize, there are no plans to stop improving the design.
“The end goal is to develop a full system that can be deployed to detect these land mines,” says Frazer. “The next step is to figure out an automated methodology to detect them. Right now, they are not automatically detected; you have to manually look at the data to find them. So we are looking into doing supervised and unsupervised machine learning to detect them.”
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