Keeping one step ahead of lethal anti-personnel mines in Ukraine

Low-flying drones with GPS-enabled thermal cameras and magnetic resonance are among new methods used to clear mines and unexploded ordnance

Last month, six specialist instructors from both the Engineer and the Ordnance Corps of the Irish Defence Forces finished delivering a training course alongside Cypriot military engineer instructors on locating and neutralising both mines and unexploded ordnance such as artillery shells and bombs.

The course attendees were from the Ukrainian armed forces. This was the first of 30 Irish training staff pledged by the Government at any given time to the EU military assistance mission, established in October 2022. Twenty-four EU member states have offered training, personnel and military equipment to the mission.

Mine Action Review is a Norwegian-based research group conducting analysis on land contamination from mines and cluster munition remnants worldwide. It collates and analyses data globally from national authorities, clearance operators and NGOs. In its report last October, 56 countries were listed as contaminated with anti-personnel mines, with the worst being Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Iraq and Yemen. The report noted that worldwide, a total of just 152sq km were cleared of anti-personnel mines in 2022 – slightly less than the area of Cork city.

After 15 months of war, Ukraine is believed to be covered by more mines and unexploded ordnance than any other country. About 30 per cent of its land mass may be contaminated – about 180,000sq km, or more than twice the area of Ireland.


Ukraine is a signatory of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, whereas Russia is not, though it is nevertheless bound by applicable UN restrictions. Although both Russia and Ukraine have landmines stockpiled from the former Soviet Union, some Russian anti-personnel mines were found to have been manufactured as recently as 2021.

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Among the most lethal of modern anti-personnel mines are Russian POM-3 “jumping” mines, seen in combat for the first time in the Ukraine war. Using a seismic sensor, these devices detect approaching footsteps from up to 16 metres away and then eject a fragmentation charge into the air at chest height. The mines can be scattered across a target site by a rocket launcher up to 15 kilometres distant.

Many Ukrainians fear it may take decades before their agricultural lands can be fully restored

The majority of demining techniques worldwide are derived from the second World War period. In the heat of battle, mine-clearing ploughs detonate or simply push mines out of the way. Humanitarian demining operations after battle have to be more cautious and forensic, however.

The classic approach is to use metal detectors. Animals – particularly dogs – can often assist with narrowing searches by sniffing for explosives. Ground-penetrating radar and sensors to detect vapours leaking from mine casings have also been tested, but can have challenges in wet and cold conditions.

A Danish geologist, Martin Jebens, has led a recent project with the International Committee of the Red Cross using a GPS-enabled thermal camera on a low-flying drone. Differential heat signals from the ground, possibly from buried landmines or maybe just harmless pieces of scrap metal, are interpreted by a machine learning algorithm. This was developed by Waseda University in Tokyo and has been trained on numerous images of landmines and ordnance. The approach reduces the false alarm rate and greatly improves the probability of accurate detection.

The demining task ahead in Ukraine is enormous, but 55 other countries worldwide also remain in danger from mines

The Australian federal government agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, recently spun out a start-up in partnership with a technology development firm. The new company, MRead, uses magnetic resonance to pulse radio frequency signals into the ground. The waves are tuned to resonate with various crystalline compounds used in explosives. If these are present, a radio wave echo is detected by the device indicating the presence of a mine or unexploded ordnance. Unlike some other approaches, the technology works with mines which do not contain any metal, and cannot be misled by harmless metal debris.

Many Ukrainians fear it may take decades before their agricultural lands can be fully restored. Frustrated by the shortages of official mining sappers and by the sheer scale of the task, some brave farmers have even started demining their own lands themselves, using ordinary metal detectors. In a report last month, Reuters described how one innovative Ukrainian farmer has been successfully clearing his farmland by retrofitting an old tractor with protective armour from abandoned Russian vehicles, and then operating it remotely. It survived running over an anti-tank mine, and was put back to use after repair to the armour plating.

The demining task ahead in Ukraine is enormous, but 55 other countries worldwide also remain in danger from mines still malingering after previous conflicts.

As we are about to debate our historical neutral stance at the forthcoming Consultative Forum on International Security Policy, I wonder whether we might broaden our national science and research policies beyond just raw commercial and academic objectives to also target innovation for humanitarian applications. Regardless of each particular hostility and the parties involved, Irish technologists could have a legitimate role in compassionate innovation and so help rebuild peace for shattered lands, localities and lives.