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Kickstopper: Please do NOT give money to build this flawed “mine clearing tool”

From the creator’s Kickstarter appeal: “The Mine Kafon is a low-cost wind-powered mine detonator with the appearance of a giant, spiky-armed tumbleweed. Currently it is at a prototype stage and with your support we will turn it into a reality”. – Let’s hope not.

[I have updated this post with content from the comments. The inventors have since reached their goal and will be shooting a documentary with the funding.]

There is an old joke that goes “Why is divorce so expensive? Because it’s worth it.”

The same thing goes for landmine clearance.

From time to time I see really bad ideas that well-meaning people have to clear landmines more cheaply than is being done currently. I posted a few months ago about a landmine detection app for the iPhone as just one example of a really bad idea.

Landmine clearance done to UN standards is a painfully meticulous process involving highly-trained professionals working in often grueling conditions. The work is tedious not just because it is dangerous. It is tedious because at the end of the day. the organization responsible for clearing the land is making a promise to the people soon to live there that the land is safe. No such promise can be made without adhering to internationally recognized standards. You can’t cut corners on this stuff.

I have been seeing a LOT of a new entry into the Really Bad Idea For Clearing Landmines Department. It has been described as a tumbleweed with pressure plates. The device gets randomly blown around a minefield by the wind and detonates mines as it goes.

The Mine Kafon (teaser) from Callum Cooper on Vimeo.

It is a beautiful work of art, and no wonder, it was developed by the otherwise brilliant designer Massoud Hassani. It is lovely to look at, but in no way would I ever want my family to live on land that has been deemed safe by using by this device.

I have read many articles on this device and have even watched the Ted talk, but nowhere have I seen anyone voicing any skepticism or any  demining experts interviewed.

So here is some authoritative review since no one seems to be printing it:

  • An EOD unit in Holland, where the inventor of this tool lives, tested the Mine Kafon and claimed it was “not suitable for mine clearance“.
  • Colin King who lead the first humanitarian mine clearance project in Afghanistan in the 1990’s and is the author of  Jane’s Mines & EOD Operational Guide, which  provides detailed operational information on the recognition and disposal of mines and explosive ordnance around the world, said “There are so many reasons why this device is hopeless that it’s hard to know where to start.” 

As I have said on this blog before before, real-life situations are  much different than the ideal lab or simulated environments where gizmos like  Hassani’s invention are developed. This beautiful, bamboo gadget is ultimately dangerous and has no practical application in the real world.

King went on to say:

 [The Mine Kafon is] completely unsystematic, so you don’t know where it has or hasn’t been, let alone what it’s done. It would also fail to set off many mines since – by their nature – the most problematic are hidden in ruts or potholes, around vegatation, edges of ditches etc. Minefields are not golf courses; if they were, clearance would be a whole lot easier. Different mines also respond to different pressures and pressure durations.

 

Matt Asher, author of the Probability and Statistics blog took it a step further and created a simulation of multiple Kafons working in a minefield under ideal conditions and still being ineffective:

With most of these devices, it is ok just to ignore the whole thing and it goes away. Now, though, the inventor (along with a filmmaker who gets a cut of the action) has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to help develop more of his large-scale toy (his words) for hopeful use in the field. So far he has raised nearly $115,000.00 towards his goal of NEARLY $165,000.00.

[Update: The inventors and filmmaker raised their target funding and will be shooting a documentary of their efforts with the Kickstarter money.]

I promise you, if you give money to developing this tool, it will never clear a single acre where people will live without injury or death from landmines as a result. If you want to give money to clear mines, give your money to one of the organizations, below.

Mines Advisory Group: “We work to tackle the destructive legacy of violence and conflict; to release land for food production; to increase safe access to vital resources like water, education and health services; and to build a better future for women, men and children alike.”

HALO Trust: “HALO is the world’s oldest and largest humanitarian landmine clearance organisation. For more than two decades, we have set the standard for the sector through technical innovation and robust management.”

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James Hathaway

James Hathaway of Hathaway Communications is the co-founder of Clear Path International (CPI) and has worked in international, non-profit communications since 1997. His is the former Senior Communications Manager for The Orvis Company where he conceived and produced the popular Orvis Fly Fishing Guide Podcast. He has been a guest blogger for business guru Tom Peters and consults to the Morris Animal Foundation, The Orvis Company, CPI, the Polus Center for Social and Economic Development, Pure Water for the World and other organizations. He lives in Vermont with his two sons, their golden retriever and a bunch of free-range chickens.

7 Comments

  1. You say it is a terrible idea but not once do you give specifics. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with you i’d just like to know the basis for you assertions.
    Outside of the fact that it is unguided (which i doubt it’s an insurmountable problem) I can’t,at first glance, see other problems with it. So please enlighten us.

    • From an engineering stand point I would have to say that the biggest flaw would be that it is shaped like a ball. A ball only touches down to the ground one tiny point at a time. This would be highly inefficient at clearing anything more than a fine line.

  2. James, you need to explain that for a field to be “cleared”, all the mines must be removed or detonated. And then explain that this device might find a few mines but it will lead people to believe the field is cleared when it is not. Hence, people will be hurt or killed as a result of using this device.

  3. Hi Frank, I led the first team to train Afghan deminers ((1989) as the Russians departed and have been working in humanitarian mine action ever since. There are so many reasons why this device is hopeless that it’s hard to know where to start.

    Primarily, it’s completely unsystematic, so you don’t know where it has or hasn’t been, let alone what it’s done. It would also fail to set off many mines since – by their nature – the most problematic are hidden in ruts or potholes, around vegatation, edges of ditches etc. Minefields are not golf courses; if they were, clearance would be a whole lot easier. Different mines also respond to different pressures and pressure durations.

    The problem with so many well-intentioned inventors is that they assume that the problem is relatively straightforward, but the combination of mine types and environmental factors mean a vast number of permutations that no single approach can solve reliably. Believe me, if it were as simple as this we would have done it long ago…

    Colin King (Fenix-insight.co.uk) and (ckingassociates.co.uk)

  4. I am in no way an expert and bow to the comments of anyone with actual experience (for instance, some of Colin King’s statement in the post above). That said, I saw this thing at a Tedx, and want to reply to some statements:

    – The designer (according to his own words) grew up playing in mine-strewn areas. So it’s not just a lab space fabrication.
    – There is on-board GPS and sensors, so tracking where the thing has been is indeed possible.
    – The original article above focuses on ‘mine clearance to UN standards’. That kind of clearance is awesome, of course. However, what if you don’t have the money for that level, AND your kids are playing in the mine field anyway?

    That said, this kind of criticism is a good thing. I want to be sure that we’re talking about a device that actually does the good it promises, does not fail in real-life situations, and isn’t a prettily designed media hype. At this point, I’m not ready to write off the Kafon though.

  5. James you are correct in saying this is an unsystematic approach. I have created a simulation of that shows the inefficiency of Hassani’s approach. You can view the simulation here: http://www.statisticsblog.com/2013/01/simulation-of-landmine-clearing-with-massoud-hassanis-mine-kafon/

    • This is a brilliant analysis, Matt… your model also assumes ideal conditions (almost like a golf course, I assume) and still the Kaffon is ultimately ineffective. Thanks for posting this. Very, very interesting!!