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Drones in Demining – Enhancing Mine Action Operations with UAS imagery (Case Study)

The Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining (GICHD) last year moved its unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program into its operational testing phase, working with The HALO Trust and MAG in Angola to analyse the real-world benefits that unmanned aerial systems (UAS) can bring to demining activities. 

In our latest senseFly case study (full article), we speak with staff from the GICHD and The Halo Trust to learn about the project’s findings to date.

“The GICHD first mapped the benefits and challenges of using UAS for mine action operations via several online surveys that our team conducted between 2012 and 2014,” says Inna Cruz, an Information Management Advisor at GICHD and the organisation’s UAS project leader. The 42 respondents included representatives of international mine action organisations and nongovernmental organisations, predominantly consisting of information-management and operations staff with combined work experience that spans more than 20 mine-affected countries.

This initial feasibility study saw promising potential for the use of high-resolution UAS imagery in demining operations. “We saw that the images acquired can be used to enhance planning, recording and reporting capabilities at the different stages of the Land Release process, namely non-technical survey, technical survey, and clearance,” Cruz report.

We saw that the images acquired can be used to enhance planning, recording and reporting capabilities at the different stages of the Land Release process

Following this positive start, in Spring 2015 the GICHD’s drone project entered its operational implementation phase. Due to run until the end of 2016, this sees the GICHD’s eBee UAS being used in Angola across a range of different demining applications, operated first by the GICHD’s partner The HALO Trust—the world’s largest humanitarian demining NGO—then due to be continued by Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

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HALO Trust and MAG staff planning their next automated UAS flight. (Image: GICHD/HALO)

The GICHD’s team is assessing the value that drones can bring—or more specifically, their high-resolution imagery and outputs—across a wide range of different applications, from the updating of cartography before mine action operations take place, and non-technical survey tasks such as geo-locating Suspected Hazardous Areas (SHAs), through to operational planning for technical surveys, clearance and post clearance land documentation.

Of the different applications of UAS imagery that the GICHD has investigated, some have only come to light through using the technology in the field, says Cruz: “The imagery collected with the drone was intended to help us monitor post-release development and to plan demining operations. However, since the digital surface model that is generated using the drone’s images also calculates the gradients of different slopes, we believe this output may also be useful in determining suitable access routes for machines getting to the sites, such as the demining machines themselves.”

Another interesting lesson has been how the drone’s data could potentially help staff predict the locations of further contamination. In addition, says Houlsby, using a drone could also be helpful when collecting information on inaccessible or hazardous areas, for example for operational planning purposes. Plus, the drone’s data allows mine action teams to more accurately record changes in land use, by providing precise before and after imagery.

We have proved that UAS imagery—when infrastructure and permissions allow this data to be collected—helps in the planning and monitoring of humanitarian mine action operations

In summarising the GICHD’s UAS findings to date, Cruz is positive about the impact unmanned aircraft can have. “We have proved that UAS imagery—when infrastructure and permissions allow this data to be collected—helps in the planning and monitoring of humanitarian mine action operations. It can also be used to record proof of cancellations for suspected hazardous area and the DSMs generated from the UAS imagery could be used to help teams to prepare the paths for the demining machines that will carry out future technical surveys. The fact that we can use the UAS to accurately document land use changes, such as urbanisation and agricultural development, is also a big help in communicating the effects of demining to donors.”

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“This flight was originally carried out in preparation for the deployment of the D-250 [demining machine] into the area. In the end however, this image—combined with information collected on the ground—was used as supporting evidence that the area had already been used for some time by the returning local population for agriculture, was not mined and could therefore be cancelled,” says Houlsby. (Image: GICHD/HALO)
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A drone-produced orthomosaic combined with a digital surface model, shown in Esri ArcScene, that details the extent of clearance by manual deminers on a HALO Trust minefield (the clearance activity is visible as a lighter coloured grid). Image: GICHD/HALO.

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