By William Ramirez, a veteran of the Colombian military from Military Engineers Corps
The discovery and removal of explosive ordnance is extremely challenging, particularly dangerous, and is an often thankless ordeal. The experts tasked with completing this life-or-death work deserve tools of the trade produced with their comfort, safety, and success in mind. Proper training, budget constraints, and challenging work environments are but a few of the factors that add to the stress of this objective.
Militaries, demining groups, and countermine agencies must make smart choices when it comes to handheld mine detection and UXO removal detection equipment. Years ago, some of these groups used magnetometers, which came with several disadvantages. Magnetometers are only used for locating ferrous (iron) metals, and they frequently emitted many false signals when “hot rocks” were encountered. Usually containing magnetite, hot rocks generate an audible signal response that frustrates users when they are unable to eliminate such false responses.
Modern metal detection equipment goes beyond the capability of such magnetometers. Various standards, such as the Military Standard (MIL-STD) or Defense Standard, were established after World War II to be used as standards by military branches and as guidelines for rating a product’s ability to withstand extreme conditions. Purchasing agents of Countermine/ERW detectors must take factors like durability, submersibility, cost, and even manufacturing procedures into account when making such an important purchase.
Each agency will develop its own criteria for the purchase of detection gear, often related to the strategic mission of the gear. What may be the right fit for one military or humanitarian group may prove unworkable for others. This article is intended to serve as a primer for key decision-makers in the UXO/ERW field in relation to fulfilling such needs. The following list of factors represents a great starting point to weigh the various countermine/ERW features available in today’s detectionmarketplace.
1. Detection strength / ability
Each group will have a unique set of test targets that absolutely must be detected. Test plots may include parameters such as: depth of detection; ability to pick up a target within a junk-laden area; ability to overcome electrical interference (EMI); ability to ground balance to terrain that is highly mineralized; or ability to detect specific targets with very little metallic content in them. It is highly recommended that your users have a safe testing area where the detection of specific “targets” can be verified.
2. Ease of use
In many operations it is critical that the detection gear be simple to operate. In Ukraine, for example, there is such a huge need for mine clearance that very basic metal detectors are often operated due to a lack of funds for more expensive equipment. Ease of use is especially important on the front lines of any combat zone, especially when factoring in the additional hazards of soldier fatigue and stress.
Even in humanitarian demining, where more funds may be available for high-tech equipment, it is imperative that operators clearly understand all functions of their countermine detectors. In many cases, these operators are not advanced users of metal detection equipment. Their success and their safety depend on their ability to comprehend the key functions of their equipment. One such key feature that should be included on your detector is ground balance, a quick function where the user can eliminate environmental instability by balancing the detector’s electronics to the current soil condition. This should be a direct-drive control that does not require the user to fumble through sub-menus to reach the Ground Balance function.
3. Weather resistance / submersible
In areas where streams or shallow water areas have been contaminated with explosive ordnance, your detection units will need to be fully submersible to at least a shallow depth of 3 meters or more. Some highly specialized applications may require even greater submersion depth.
Even if your countermine units will not intentionally be fully submerged, they need to be able to withstand the elements. This can include heavy rain, blowing sands, dusty environments, and extreme heat or cold. The MIL-STD-810H certification means that a product has met nearly thirty test situations regarding environmental conditions and has passed them. Such devices qualify as being heat-resistant, dust-resistant, water-resistant, and shock-resistant. These units have been tested for leakage, high and low temperature shocks, rust testing, transport shock, random vibration, humidity, and other elements.
Not all detectors are well suited to some of our planet’s most punishing environments. In some parts of Latin America, jungle conditions are hot and humid, where temperatures can easily exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and where humidity hovers around 90%.
Less expensive “hobby” detectors used as an economical tool for ordnance removal may work in clear weather. But the same devices may not be engineered to keep out blowing sand in the desert or to prevent water from seeping into the control box even when the unit is only momentarily submerged. The environmental conditions of an active war zone can reduce the life expectancy of these hobby detectors from multiple years to just a few weeks.
Countermine detectors must be easily deployed. Factors to consider include weight, compactability, and storage/transport considerations. Does the unit easily fold up or compact down to a manageable size for transport? Does it come with a protective case or carry bag that can easily be hauled to your site?
Regarding compactability, you should learn whether the detector is usable while in a collapsed or partly collapsed state. Certain search space constraints may mean that the detector cannot be used effectively while fully extended, and different operators may require different shaft lengths due to their own height and reach. In some military demining situations, the operator may be on his or her knees or even in a prone position while sweeping the coil for unseen ordnance. Being able to adapt to the end user is important.
What is the weight of the detector? Units that are very light should be studied regarding their durability. If made of lightweight plastics, will the unit survive a drop on rocky soil? If the unit is more robustly built but slightly heavier, are there straps or harnesses available to help alleviate strain on the user’s arm?
5. Technologies and frequencies
Mine detection equipment often utilizes one of two frequency technologies: a fixed, single very low frequency (VLF) format, or a pulse-induction (PI) technology that employs a variety of frequencies with a varying pulse rate. In highly mineralized soils, a PI machine is better suited to overcoming this environmental challenge than a VLF machine. These difficult soils – which can originate naturally in diverse environments or artificially through the detritus of a combat zone – must be addressed ahead of purchase. Detectors that cannot handle the expected soil conditions are rarely able to compensate for them with a simple change of settings. For saltwater conditions, the detection gear must include a salt elimination/ reduction mode, or a PI detector may be best utilized.
There are many kinds of “noisy” detection environments. I have seen officials in Bogotá shocked to see a detector operating quietly in an office environment – because not all countermine detectors can handle this electrical noise. The sands of the Tatacoa Desert or river lands in Caquetá department in Colombia are contaminated with iron and aluminum that can easily blind the wrong kind of detector.
That said, there are use cases where a VLF detector may be preferred. Often, VLF detectors are more capable at detecting the small copper wires and triggers used in some landmines and IEDs. Whether the need for environmental compensation or small wire detection is greater will depend on your use case.
Does the unit comply with humanitarian demining standards? While not necessary for all applications, compliance with the test and evaluation requirements for mine action equipment provided under IMAS 03.40, particularly CWA 14747-1 and CWA 14747-2, serves as a useful baseline for metal detector demining operations in both humanitarian and military contexts.
6. Important key features
These include static detection (also known as non-motion mode detection), stealth modes, sensitivity, and electrical interference (EMI) reduction. A true non-motion mode allows a detector’s search head to hover motionless above a metallic target and continue reporting the target’s presence. A motion-mode detector requires the user to continually swing the search head back and forth over a target to generate a response, which increases operator fatigue and elevates the ongoing hazard of nearby ordnance. Stealth mode features include any that allow operators to keep a low profile while detecting, including alternate lighting, sound, and alarm options.
All these features need to be easily accessible, either as direct-drive functions or with a quick press of a menu button or two. A feature that is hard to access or understand is close to useless in a high-stress environment, particularly when training may be in short supply. Humanitarian demining efforts can tolerate a more complicated interface than those used in a combat environment. Where speed is a low priority, cost or other features may take precedence.
What is the build quality of the detection unit you are evaluating? Has it been tested for withstanding accidental drops? Is it comprised of light plastic rods or arm cuffs that might easily snap during transport or against pressure? Extreme field conditions, like heavy mud or mountainous inclines, can increase the risk that the operator drops his detector. Vehicular accidents are also more common in Counter-IED contexts like a war zone, where roads may become unreliable, and the presence of enemy forces may exacerbate difficult driving conditions. When a detector falls out of the back of the transport, does it survive the impact with the road?
Working in dense jungle terrain like that found in Panama’s Darién Province has taught me the importance of this requirement. Treacherous terrain means that operators are exposed to significant tripping hazards. What will happen to the detector not just when it is dropped, but when its operator falls directly onto it?
It is important to work with equipment where operators are able to make repairs in the field as necessary. Check to see if spare parts are available from the manufacturer as replacements when such repairs are necessary.
8. Power source
Alkaline or rechargeable batteries are easy to find in most countries and are therefore used in many countermine detectors. Built-in, rechargeable batteries remove excess weight from the machine, but come at the cost of requiring available charging stations in locations that can be remote or without reliable power. A realistic assessment of this trade-off is easy to neglect, especially when end users place a high premium on low weight. But a metal detector with no charge is as good as broken in the field. For swappable batteries, a higher premium should be placed on detectors that use the most commonly available types. AA batteries are ubiquitous, but not all alternatives are so common.
9. Supplier considerations
This is equally important as some of the features above when evaluating a countermine/ERW detector. It is vital that the manufacturer has a solid quality-control process in place, that they utilize military-grade components, and have a robust production standard for creating consistent products.
What is the country of origin? What is the typical acquisition process through this manufacturer? How long are lead times? Some suppliers have units readily available in their warehouse, whereas another manufacturer might need a one to two-month lead-time to produce a larger order. What are the manufacturer’s reliability ratings from past customers? How long has this supplier been producing security and/or military-grade products?
Repairs are expected from time to time. How easy is it to acquire spare parts from the manufacturer or its distributors? Are there service centers available that are convenient? What is the length of the product warranty?
A quality manufacturer will have simple, easy-to-access video tutorials on the use and maintenance of their equipment. I prefer to work with companies where I know that expert technical feedback can be obtained with a simple phone call or email.
At the end of the evaluation process, this is always a factor with any purchasing agent. You want the most efficient, highly sensitive, feature-rich, sturdily built machine for your money. The cheapest solution on the market may not be the safest or most effective tool of the trade, but paying top-dollar is also not necessarily required. Rank your required features (such as ground balance, RFI elimination, etc.) and see if some of the available units are eliminated just through this exercise. Then, drill down into the manufacturer’s reputation and acquisition process and lead-time to further rank your top choices.
In the end, there is no substitute to knowing your application. What works for demining in the humid jungles of Colombia may not when it comes to the cooler steppes of Ukraine. What works for veteran demining professionals may not work for humanitarian volunteers. What works for recovering UXO may not work for picking up low-metal mines. Know your mission and know your users. Everything follows from that. If you have a good grasp on that information, then the 10 factors above can help triangulate the right product for you from the data you already have.■
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Ramirez is a veteran of the Colombian military from Military Engineers Corps who has traveled to many countries to participate in countermine/ERW efforts. He serves as a consultant and trainer for military and humanitarian demining projects.
Counter-IED Report, Winter 2023/24