WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Being able to detect explosives and mines from the air is a game changer that will help save lives and this is just the first in a long line of new developments.
A little while ago I wrote an article about an MQ-9 Reaper drone that used a neutrino based “bomb sniffer” explosives that were miles away from it, and now, a scant half a year later here I am writing about a smaller drone that’s managed to pick up the same skills, but with a twist – it hunts mines from the air.
This week researchers at the Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) announced that they are using drones to detect buried and submerged mines.
The Mine Warfare Rapid Assessment Capability (MIW RAC) system consists of a one pound quadcopter that in its case carries an ultra-sensitive magnetometer that detects mines and provides real-time search data to a handheld Android tablet.
MIW RAC is designed to help explosive ordnance disposal teams quickly find mines and metal obstacles in coastal surf zones and shallow water zones while at the same time providing sea borne units with an aerial capability that helps them find underwater mines.
While the quadcopter and tablet are available commercially, the heart of the new system is its proprietary magnetometer sensor suite, which uses complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to differentiate between various types of objects.
MIW RAC came out of ONR’s “TechSolutions program” that rapidly develops prototype technologies to address problems voiced by sailors and marines, and back in 2015 the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command (NECC) asked for a portable system that could “detect hazards in surf zones that was easy for war fighters to use and fit diverse platforms.”
With TechSolutions guidance, the NECC partnered with NSWC and two commercial companies, BDS and Physical Sciences, to develop MIW RAC.
“We took our inspiration from a stationary scanning system developed by BDS,” said NSWC scientist Rosemarie Oelrich, “it was sensitive enough to not only detect weapons, but identify the hidden location of the object on a person and the angle in which it was oriented – a knife in a front pocket or gun turned sideways, for example. And we flipped that concept on its head. Instead of a stationary system detecting moving objects, we created a moving system to detect relatively stationary objects.”
“This technology will help sailors and marines who are approaching a beachfront to rapidly clear, or at least determine the location of, mines or other hazards that are in their way,” said Office of Naval Research Command Master Chief Matt Matteson, “it could potentially save a lot of lives.”
TechSolutions will deliver prototype MIW RACs to NECC’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group later this year for further testing and evaluation but it’s also not too hard a leap to see how this technology could one day soon find its way into airport scanners, or urban security and surveillance drones like some of the new persistent surveillance drones that can watch an entire city in real time, such as WAMI or the Elbit Hermes 900, that are coming onto the market.