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Instead of Dropping Bombs, Can Drones Locate Unexploded Ones?

Humanitarian groups in Laos may soon have help clearing munitions from the Vietnam War

2 min read
Instead of Dropping Bombs, Can Drones Locate Unexploded Ones?
Photo: Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme

In much of the world, an American drone flying overhead means danger: Predator drones and the like can unleash fury out of the deep blue sky. But drones can also help war-torn countries recover, argued Ryan Baker, CEO of drone maker Arch Aerial, at a SXSW Interactive talk yesterday. His company hopes to use its drones to identify locations that are likely to be riddled with unexploded bombs from past wars. 

Baker wants to start with Laos, which bears the terrible distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation ever: During the height of the Vietnam War, the country was pounded with about 2 million tons of ordnance. And Laotians today are still suffering the effects of that bombardment, as unexploded shells and landmines still litter the landscape. The biggest threat comes from the cluster bombs dropped during the Vietnam War, which scattered small explosives about the size of tennis balls. 

In Laos, “there have been some 12,000 accidents related to UXO [unexploded ordnance] since 1973,” said Baker. Most deaths and injuries occur when people try to remove unexploded bombs, he said, or when local farmers till their fields.

imgUnexploded ordinance is hard to spot.Photo: Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme

Baker said his company’s octocopter will carry a laser imaging system known as LIDAR (often used in self-driving cars) to survey terrain and identify locations where unexploded ordance will likely be found. LIDAR is useful because it can see through vegetation and create precision maps of the ground. By flying drones above Laos’s forests and fields, surveyors can look for topographical features signifying places that might have been targeted by bombing campaigns—such as bunkers and trenches, Baker explained. Arch Aerial plans to do some test runs this year in cooperation with one of the humanitariangroups working on unexploded ordance in Laos. 

This initiative is only possible because of rapid advances in LIDAR technology, Baker said. “A few years ago, a LIDAR system was the size of this table,” he said, “and had to be fitted into a gutted airplane.” And conducting a survey by plane requires plenty of money and compliance with flight regulations. Now, with a small and cheap LIDAR system aboard a drone, a surveyor could create an aerial map with “risk profiles” of the landscape before setting foot on the ground. 

Surveyors will still have to deal with public perception and the stigma surrounding drones, Baker noted, since Americans operating strange equipment are sometimes viewed with suspicion. But there’s an easy way to solve that problem, he said: Just hand the controls to a local. 

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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