Drones for Ukrainian De-Mining Operations ⛏️

Welcome 🇪🇺

Welcome to the 6th issue of the European Resilience Newsletter and thank you to those who already subscribed! Uwe and I (more about us at the end) started this newsletter to accelerate the building of the European DefenceTech ecosystem and fill a critical gap in European Resilience. We will keep the content bite-sized, frequent and free. We also openly invite guest content creators to contribute (see below for details on how to join). Our goal is to build an ecosystem of founders, operators, investors, and industry experts who are dedicated to enhancing European resilience through technology.

This issue we continue with our guest author Jannic Meyer, Founders Associate at Project A does a deep dive into the usage of drones in de-mining operations in Ukraine.

We also hope our readers have a safe holiday season - we will return in January!

Drones for Ukrainian De-Mining Operations ⛏️

Paul Jefferson, one of the earliest humanitarian de-miners said “A landmine is the perfect soldier: Ever courageous, never sleeps, never misses”. 

The Ukraine war has put an issue back into the spotlight that for a long-time has flown under the radar. 110 Million landmines globally contaminate more than 90 countries and cause more than 5000 civilian victims annually. Particularly, the discrepancy in cost between laying a mine at about $3-$30 with the cost of removing a mine at between $300 and $1000 underscores the disproportionate economic burden and humanitarian impact associated with the clearance of landmines. This stark contrast in financial expenditure also emphasizes the strategic military value of mines as a cost-effective means of hindering enemy movement and reinforcing defensive positions.

Within Ukraine, more than 250.000 sq km are contaminated by Russian landmines, equating to a $37bn effort to demine Ukraine entirely. To draw comparisons, 250.000 sq km is a territory larger than not only the entire Korean Peninsula (around 221.000 sq km) but also Romania (around 238.000 sq km) and Britain (around 244.000 sq km). 

Since the start of the Ukraine invasion, only 80.000 landmines have been successfully defused. Mine density is outrageously high, with up to five mines per square meter on average in occupied territories and a frontline about 1,000km long, slowing down the pace of Kyiv’s counterattack dramatically.

Map of Ukrainian Territories that could potentially be contaminated by explosive objects as of April 2023. Source: Emergency Services of Ukraine

The process & requirements of demining differs from a post-conflict humanitarian perspective or an acute military operation perspective. 

In the case of humanitarian use-cases, The standard is to clear everything with as much confidence as possible. The first phase involves identifying a contaminated area, which can be relatively straightforward in cases where active fighting occurred. However, in scenarios with limited intelligence, more challenging situations may necessitate the use of remote sensing technologies, such as satellite imagery or thermal imaging.

Once a suspected contaminated area is identified, the methods employed become increasingly accurate, with ground teams utilizing metal detectors or dogs. The nature of these efforts is to reduce the area that truly requires clearance and enable teams to enter and begin the actual removal of mines. 

Detection rates approaching 99.6% are required and regarded as indispensable in order for such removal operations to take place. Such a high threshold warrants (or causes) the technology being hypersensitive which leads to >99% of time investments and >80% of costs associated with demining being due to false positives.

In a military context, the issue is regarded differently, with the principal goal being to create a safe path/corridor for troops to advance and breach enemy lines. In the case of Ukraine, it is to effectively conduct their counteroffensive. 

Detection thresholds do not need to be as high as in the humanitarian use case since all the military needs is a quick and safe breach through a suspected minefield. Methods such as handheld metal detectors or mine probing, while still being the most used methods, are not particularly compatible with the mission of quick and safe breach through suspected minefields. Instead, armed forces have developed mine rollers or mine flails that have been used since WW I, but none have proven completely effective in finding and clearing mines. This is principally due to these vehicles only working well on completely flat terrain and rapidly losing effectiveness on rougher terrain, which is primarily where larger quantities of mines are buried. Moreover, these machines can weigh up to 60 tons (German Keiler at 53 tonnes) impeding any rapid military maneuvers due to the significant effort in moving those machines to their destination. Owing to their substantial weight and limited maneuverability, these machines are not deployed on the frontline; instead, they are almost exclusively used in already recaptured land, rendering their effectiveness in frontline operations near 0. 

As a result, “sappers”, soldiers equipped with 60 cm-long metal probes prodding the top surface for landmines and using a 90-second fuse to detonate any mine they have discovered, are principally used in the Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

Outside of Ukraine, a lot of research has been conducted which has resulted in better demining vehicles and techniques such as using sniffer dogs or rats to detect the explosives inside landmines. This is especially useful for the numerous plastic-shelled landmines that resist standard detection methods.

Using a layered approach with these techniques, civilian demining organizations like Mechem (which pioneered the use of sniffer dogs)  are now able to achieve a high enough clearance rate to make areas safe post-conflict, though the work is expensive and time-consuming

Tackling at least parts of the demining process (either identification of areas or the actual removal of mines) would benefit immensely from the addition of an autonomous system to drive down costs and increase efficiency. 

New technologies

Novel detection methodologies are being developed to detect potentially contaminated areas through the combination of existing remote sensing technologies (such as drones or satellites) and new sensors such as Ground-Penetrating Synthetic Aperture Radar (GPSAR) sensors mounted on small drones to quickly map large areas.  

The DJIM600 Pro a) equipped with a custom GPSAR sensor payload and b) for landmine detection. Source: https://arxiv.org/abs/2106.10108

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) works alongside electromagnetic induction for landmine detection, with the GPR sensor being particularly useful in its ability to detect and discriminate low metal content in landmines.  

The technology is not entirely new, as GPSAR have been integrated into onboard Unimogs and other military ground vehicles since the 20th century. 

However, the advancements and ubiquity of drones have paved the way for GPSAR mounted on those small aerial vehicles, which have significant advantages in terms of speed and coverage of ground over ground vehicles. Particularly for demining, where large and often inaccessible areas need to be covered quickly without touching the ground. 

Overview of GPR 

  • Working Principle:

    • GPR operates by emitting short pulses of electromagnetic waves into the ground. These waves penetrate the soil and bounce back when they encounter subsurface materials with different electromagnetic properties. The returning signals are then processed to generate detailed cross-sectional images of the underground environment.

  • Versatility:

    • GPR is versatile and can detect a wide range of materials, including both metallic and non-metallic objects. This makes it invaluable for locating landmines with various compositions and construction materials.

  • Terrain Adaptability:

    • GPR is effective in diverse terrains, ranging from sandy deserts to rocky landscapes. Its adaptability allows demining teams to use the technology across different environmental conditions. Nonetheless, it works best in dry conditions with low humidity (dry summer or frozen winter soil) because electromagnetic waves dissipate quickly in water. 

  • Rapid Coverage:

    • One of the significant advantages of GPR is its ability to cover large areas quickly. This rapid survey capability makes it a crucial tool for efficiently assessing and mapping mine-affected regions.

  • Anomaly Detection:

    • GPR excels at identifying anomalies in the soil, which may indicate the presence of buried objects. These anomalies can be further investigated to determine whether they pose a threat, streamlining the demining process.

  • Depth Penetration:

    • GPR can penetrate to significant depths depending on the frequency of the electromagnetic waves used. This capability is crucial for detecting buried landmines that may be situated at varying depths below the surface.

In de-mining operations, GPR serves as a vital component of a multi-faceted approach, complementing other detection methods to ensure thorough and accurate clearance of landmine-infested areas. Its ability to provide detailed subsurface images aids demining teams in making informed decisions about the location, type, and depth of buried threats.

At scale (and with standardization), systems like GPR drones could drive down the costs of identifying and removing landmines in military and humanitarian use cases. The technology is still mainly of an academic nature and is still a step short of being transformed into practical mine-detection products. Nonetheless, the time is ripe for such a technology to gain wide-scale adoption. Especially in Ukraine, in liberated areas such as Kharkiv or Mykolaiv, farmers need to be confident that land used for agricultural purposes is quickly and accurately assessed. There are first attempts from non-for-profit organizations like the Halo Trust, a globally operating humanitarian NGO working towards clearing areas of unexploded ordnance. The Halo Trust has received a $33M donation from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation in order to tackle humanitarian demining in Ukraine. Some of those proceeds will include working with cutting-edge technology such as airborne GPSAR to accurately pinpoint the exact location of landmines.

With Ukraine as a pressing example with the heaviest landmine and unexploded ordnance contamination since WWII, there is significant potential and more importantly, necessity for private organizations to accelerate their development of humanitarian demining products. The US approved $89M in humanitarian demining assistance for Ukraine in August 2022 and spent more $4.2bn in clearing landmines from 1993 to 2022. Nonetheless, modern technology, including autonomous systems for demining, are so far missing from Western mine-clearing toolkits. 

The scale of de-mining in Ukraine is probably larger than that of all previous conflicts combined and will not only be an issue for the success of the Ukrainian military throughout the war, but an issue that will persist for decades, consuming billions of dollars.

If you are building at any part of the value chain of the demining process, we’d love to hear from you.

News That Caught Our Attention 👀

  • Europe’s lacked of military equipment preparedness - Wall Street Journal link. 

  • American defence start-ups (and scale-ups) like Anduril and Palantir are being shut out of Europe - Bloomberg link. This deserves a whole issue on its own.

  • US encourages its allies to use more drones - DefenceOne link.

  • Source: Quantum Systems - Vector

  • Anduril expands into the drone interception market with their first product concept - DefenceOne link.

  • Russia electromagetic jamming for drones and missiles is very effective - DefenceOne link.

  • Ukranian military actively training for drone pilots - DefenceOne link.

Every week we feature a list interesting roles in European DefenceTech start-ups and scale-ups for readers seeking their next challenge in their careers.

If you are a founder and would like to promote your open roles, please get in touch with us!

Passionate and want to contribute? 👩🏻‍💻

The European Resilience Tech Newsletter is always looking for regular and guest authors, writers, reporters, content creators etc. If you like what you read, you are passionate about improving European resilience regardless of your background and want to contribute, just reach out to us!

European Resilience Tech Newsletter Team

Uwe Horstmann co-founded Project A Ventures in 2012 as General Partner and has built Project A to be a leading European early stage investor with over $1bn USD under management and having backed 100+ founders. In addition to Project A, Uwe serves as Reserve Officer in the German armed forces and advises the German Ministry of Defence in digital transformation issues.

Jack Wang is a software engineer turned product driven tech investor and joined Project A in 2021 to lead the firm’s deep tech investing, which have grown to include DefenceTech. Prior to joining Project A, Jack worked in a variety of organisations such as Amazon and Macquarie Group across Australia, US and UK / Europe. Jack holds a MBA from London Business School and Bachelors of Engineering (Bioinformatics, 1st) from UNSW, Australia.

Project A Ventures is one of the leading early-stage tech investors in Europe with offices in Berlin and London. In addition to 1 billion USD assets under management, Project A supports its 100+ portfolio companies with a platform team over 140 functional experts in key areas such as software and product development, business intelligence, brand, design, marketing, sales and recruiting. Project A have backed founders of Trade Republic, WorldRemit, Sennder, KRY, Spryker, Catawiki, Unmind and Voi as well as founders building in European Resilience: