It is estimated that over 110 million active landmines are scattered all over the world, and another 250 million of them stockpiled. Every 20 minutes a landmine is detonated throughout 70 different countries. Each month, over 1,200 people are wounded or maimed by accidentally triggering a landmine, and another 800 people will end up dead. Currently, landmine removal efforts manage to dismantle about 100,000 devices each year, which is impressive, but sadly at that rate it will take over 1,100 years to clear them all. And that is provided no further mines are laid, which is pretty unlikely considering that of the 162 nations that have signed the Mine Ban Treaty, the United States, Russia and China are not among them.
Basically, landmines kind of suck. And for nations like Cambodia, which alone has as many as 6 million unexploded ordnance devices buried in the ground, dismantling them is a huge financial burden. The United Nations estimates that it will cost in excess of $50 billion to eliminate the world of landmines. Currently the world is only spending about $150 million, combined, on their removal. Unfortunately landmine removal also has an inhumanly high body count attached to their removal. According to the UN one person will die for every 5,000 mines that are removed, meaning that in a country that has already paid a staggeringly high price for war, Cambodia will still need to sacrifice 1,200 more lives to clean up the mess left by the Khmer Rouge.
But in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, 3D printers are finding themselves an unlikely ally in the struggle to solve the country’s landmine problem. It all started in 2012 when MIT professor J. Kim Vandiver was visiting a student who was working with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, one of the world’s leading landmine removal organizations. Vandiver suggested to Cambodia country manager Allen Tan that Golden West form a partnership between his students and the Singapore University for Technology and Design (SUTD) to develop a new way of creating demining training aids. It is possible to make entirely plastic version of mines using injection molding; however, the cost is already prohibitive for just one model, but there are dozens of wildly different devices available. So instructors typically needed to use books and charts to teach the complicated process of demining, or get access to hard to find deactivated mines that are extremely difficult to travel with.
“There’s these pieces of inert ordinance that sit in EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) classrooms. And when you go into a new country, you cannot bring inert ordnance, ship it trans-nationally, because it’s considered a weapons system still. I can’t get it on an airplane, I can’t ship it via FedEx,” Tan said in an interview with GlobalPost.
When the conversation between Vandiver and Tan turned to 3D printing it seemed like they had stumbled onto the perfect solution. MIT has a close working relationship with SUTD and they happen to have a world class 3D printing lab. Because 3D printing is fast and inexpensive, multiple types of mine replicas could be made, and easily refined as more is learned about individual devices. Thanks to the help from MIT and SUTD and $100,000 in seed funding from the State Department, Tan, a former US Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, was able create what he calls the Advanced Ordnance Teaching Materials kit.
The AOTM kit travel is an oversized suitcase containing ten 3D printed explosive devices. Each of the replica devices includes the various arming and firing mechanisms that demining workers will typically encounter in the field. Because they are teaching aids, Tan’s replicas are a little bigger than a typical device–however for the next phase of his project he plans to create more precise replicas. According to Tan, the AOTM kits are simply a superior method of teaching mine disposal, especially to deminers in war torn areas of the world like Cambodia.
“Most of our best guys who work for us here in Cambodia, they didn’t get to go to high school. It was Khmer Rouge time. You are talking about a workforce that isn’t used to learning from books, learning from powerpoints. The reason that EOD technicians or operators, the reason that they need to understand how bombs work is that they can make good decisions on how to deal with a bomb when they find one,” Tan explained.
Here is a video of some deminers learning from the AOTM kits:
Each AOTM carries a cost of $7,000 but will be discounted for any NGO looking to invest in them. But they are not sold at a profit; any money that is brought in for each sale is invested directly back into the project so it will not be reliant on donations or government aid. Tan made his first sale last year when he presented the kits at a South African demining conference. After his presentation the UN quickly pre-ordered ten sets that they intend to use on peacekeeping missions throughout Africa. After that first order word quickly spread and he’s also sold kits to PeaceTrees Vietnam, Switzerland’s International Committee for the Red Cross and even the school that Tan attended in the military, the US Army’s School of Explosive Ordnance Disposal.
Discuss the use of 3D printing in the removal of landmines here.