Land mines kill up to 20 000 people a year worldwide, according to the United Nations. It also estimates that more than 100 million mines are scattered in some 70 countries.
Egypt alone has nearly a quarter of the world’s land mines—relics of past wars. Some mines are nearly 60 years old and still active. To help make their country a safer place, members of the Egypt chapter of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS) held a national competition 6 and 7 November for students to develop robotic vehicles that could detect these deadly devices.
The Minesweepers: Towards a Landmine-Free World contest was held in Cairo, where a total of 48 teams from around Egypt—made up of university students along with middle and high school students who competed in a junior group—built robotic vehicles that could detect land mines. The competition was held just near German University in Cairo (GUC), where 20 mock mines were planted along with pieces of scrap metal in and on rocky desert fields each measuring 20 by 20 meters. First place went to the team whose robot detected the most mines in 20 minutes.
The winning team was made up of six graduate students, alumni of Ain Shams University, who attend different schools today. Together they built a wireless, remote-controlled ground vehicle powered by a battery. The vehicle relied on electromagnetic induction sensors to discriminate between land mines and metal clutter, GPS for navigation, and optical encoders for determining the vehicle’s positional. It also had wheels with deep treads for moving over the rough terrain. Their vehicle was able to detect 6 surface mines, as well as 4 of the buried mines, which were up to 10 centimeters deep.
The first-place team was awarded US $1000 from GUC and certificates of honor from the Robotics society. Second place went to a team from GUC, and third place to a team from Misr University for Science and Technology, also in Cairo. They received prizes of $750 and $400.
At the junior level, first place went to students from the Creato Kids school, and second place went to a team from IDEL school. They received prizes of $300 and $200.
“One of the main objectives of our chapter is to be active in humanitarian projects of national importance,” says IEEE Senior Member Alaa Khamis, IEEE RAS Egypt chapter chair, who came up with the idea for the contest. “The goal of the competition was to create technical challenges that will generate new research and applications for robotics in the clearing of mines, and to provide an educational forum to teach humanitarian applications of robotics.”
BUILDING A BOT
When a robot detected a mine, it had to report it to the judges by blinking an onboard light and sounding a siren for at least two seconds. When the robot finished moving over its field, it also had to produce a map of the location of the mines on its own, without the help of an operator.
As to a robot’s design, the teams had flexibility. The robots could be ground or aerial vehicles, and operate autonomously or by remote control. They could also have wheels, legs, or a hybrid of the two. The robots could also be operated with electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic control systems, and run on batteries or solar energy.
Of the 48 teams, only two built a fully autonomous vehicle, which earned bonus points because of its extra complexity. However, neither vehicle found enough mines to win. The other vehicles were controlled wirelessly.
Only one team showed up with an aerial vehicle: a remote-controlled helicopter that detected five surface mines with its metal detector, but no buried mines.
One big challenge for the students was Egypt’s hot and dusty climate, which calls for electronic components that can withstand the heat. “Many robots failed because they were built with ordinary room-temperature electronics,” Khamis says.
A challenge for the robot designers is that their machines had to distinguish between the mock mines and the small metal fragments meant to simulate the exploded ordnance and bullet casings that can litter a minefield. This can lead to high false-detection rates, Khamis points out, and was why the robots had to tell the two apart.
The four fields were mapped out so that several teams could compete at the same time. Mines were placed at the same grid coordinates in each field. Ten mines were buried and another 10 placed on the surface or partially exposed in the sand.
The mines were made of metal cubes measuring from 6 to 14 centimeters on a side. Only 21 teams produced a robot that detected at least one mine.
Khamis believes publicity about the competition will raise awareness in Egypt about land mines, and encourage local governments to collaborate with universities and help finance innovative solutions to the problem.
Competition organizers plan to host next year’s competition in Germany so as to open the contest to the international community. It was hoped that schools from outside Egypt would send students to compete this year. But the political situation in the country, as Khamis notes, kept them from coming.
A correction to this article was made on 25 November 2013.