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SA firm trials drone tech to detect explosive weapons

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This is the drone that Skymotion Solutions is trialling.
This is the drone that Skymotion Solutions is trialling.

South African-based Skymotion Solutions is trialling drone technology to detect and map unexploded ordinance (UXO).

UXO are explosive weapons (bombs, bullets, shells, grenades, land mines, naval mines, etc) that did not explode when they were employed and still pose a risk of detonation, potentially many decades after they were used or discarded.

Skymotion Solutions is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) charter company that focuses on special UAV application and development projects.

“Our shareholders – a commercial UAV operator licensed by the CAA [Civil Aviation Authority], and a component manufacturing company for the aerospace and military industries – enable us to embark on these special projects,” says Kobus Du Plessis, director of Skymotion.

He notes the group of companies has the accredited capabilities to manufacture a UAV and special components and to legally operate, under licence, such as UAVs – also known as drones – in SA and globally with the necessary authorisations.

Multirotor UAVs

Du Plessis says effective UXO detecting and mapping requires multirotor UAVs to be airborne for significant periods of time. Standard multirotor UAVs have very little flight time and require regular battery replacements, causing interruptions, he adds.

Furthermore, he explains, adding weight such as radar systems has a further negative impact on flight time on multirotor UAVs.

“Our key to success will be the use of multirotor UAVs with flight times in excess of three hours and payload capacity exceeding 50kg. This will enable us to focus more on detecting and mapping and, who knows, perhaps even develop disarming methods in the near future.”

According to Du Plessis, Skymotion is preparing to conduct the first tests with its radar system. “We are currently seeking legal operators licensed to handle landmines to engage in test flights with our current radar system.

“We have also been exploring more lightweight radar systems more suitable for multirotor UAVs. We are currently in discussions with a European supplier who manufactures superior technology with existing units in the field of detecting and mapping of UXOs in the Philippines with success.

“Our current radar system is similar in nature; however, a different make. We would like to test our existing technology before having to invest in new equipment,” Du Plessis says.

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has done previous testing of the effects of landmines.

“We are hoping to gain access, through the CSIR, to landmines for test flights under controlled circumstances being highly dangerous conditions,” Du Plessis says.

“Also based on research conducted by the CSIR, we are looking to explore potential low-cost and effective methods of disarming UXOs with the use of multirotor UAVs and other unmanned vehicles.”

UXO casualties

According to him, SA does not have any reported UXO problems.

“The rest of Africa, however, has proven to be in great need of demining operations. Seventy-eight countries are contaminated by landmines, which kill 15 000 to 20 000 people every year, while severely maiming countless more. Approximately 80% of casualties are civilian, with children the most affected age group,” says Du Plessis.

He adds an estimated average of 50% of deaths occur within hours of the blast. “In recent years, mines have been used increasingly as weapons of terror against local civilian populations specifically.

“In addition to the obvious danger of explosion, buried UXO can cause environmental contamination. In some heavily used military activity areas, munitions-related chemicals such as explosives and perchlorate (a component of pyrotechnics and rocket fuel) can enter soil and groundwater.”

He points out that major African countries stricken with UXOs include Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, Uganda, DRC, Senegal, Algeria, Somalia, and so the list goes on.

“Millions of UXOs threaten the well-being of individuals across Africa and the rest of the world. It is becoming more challenging as UXOs become more unstable over time, and brush growth makes it more difficult for these UXOs to be detected by traditional methods, such as mine detectors applied by humans.”

Statistics show 10 countries with the most reported number of mines: Egypt 23 million, Iran 16 million, Afghanistan 10 million, Angola 10 million, China 10 million, Iraq 10 million, Cambodia 7 million, Bosnia & Herzegovina 6 million, Kuwait 5 million, and Vietnam 3.5 million, Du Plessis says.

This is just 10 of the 78 stricken countries, he notes.

Zero surface contact

Du Plessis says a major problem with UXOs is that, over the years, the detonator and main charge deteriorate, frequently making them more sensitive to disturbance, and therefore more dangerous to handle.

“Multirotor UAVs are airborne, giving us zero surface contact with the areas where these UXOs are located, being either land or under water.

“The multirotor UAVs allows us to move faster, with technology enabling us to detect and map more effectively and possibly be able to disarm at the same time, without having any direct intervention by human beings, reducing the risk of injury.”

Military application is something the company will consider at a later stage, once it has thoroughly tested the application.

“As the application is meant to save lives and prevent injury to limb, we will definitely consider military application, as we feel this could be much more effective than current methods,” says Du Plessis.

“This project is not just commercial for us. Thousands of military personnel were injured and killed as a result of improvised explosive devices in Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-stricken regions. If we are successful in our application, then we would be pleased to engage organisations such as the UN or other humanitarian organisations to prevent further injuries or worse, loss of life,” he concludes.

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