Landmine clearing robot – interview
"Let's be honest here, over the years the way that we remove landmines from the ground has hardly changed. But it has to." The words of Richard Yim, CEO and founder of Demine Robotics, are hard-hitting, especially when we consider that over 500,000 mines were destroyed worldwide in 2017. Seeing that current methods were putting human life at risk, and with approximately 110 million mines left worldwide, Yim realised that there was a better way of doing things.
"When a landmine is detected, deminers have to go to the field and dig out those explosive by hand, with just a small trowel and other gardening tools," Yim explains. "Imagine being asked to dig out an explosive that can kill you with just a trowel. As a certified deminer myself, I know the mental and physical requirements to do the job: the heavy body armour weighs you down and the face mask blocks airflow, which can make you hyperventilate. Picture doing all that in 35–40°C heat in Cambodia, on your knees for 15 to 30 minutes at a time. It needs to change."
Yim decided to act upon that last statement. The fuel to his fire came from a childhood in Cambodia, where landmines were a severe societal issue, and a personal tragedy that brought the reality of the risk to the forefront of his life.
"In the early 2000s, I lost my aunt to a landmine accident," he explains. "She was clearing her land to grow crops when it happened. My dad was doing the same thing in his land beside hers. It was hard on the entire family and it was when I realised I wanted to do something to help to solve this problem. I didn't know what I could do to help at the time, but I was determined to do something to make a difference."
Yim moved to Canada when he was 13-years-old and went on to study mechanical engineering at the University of Waterloo. It was seeing a new, technology-enriched culture that opened his mind to alternative methods of demining.
"Demine Robotics started as a final year design project in 2015, when me and a group of friends got together to work on the issue of demining," Yim recounts. "By 2016, we were able to build a first cheap prototype that can cut and melt out explosives. Our professor was really encouraged by our work and pushed us to build a company around it. So I did, in January, 2016. We've since been building the solution to excavate landmines and other explosives."
The most developed product from Yim's team, originally called The Landmine Boys, is Jevit, which means 'life, in Khmer, the official language in Cambodia. Jevit is the size of a lawnmower and is able to unearth anti-personnel mines that lie 3–5cm below the ground in just three minutes. The unmanned robot uses a mechanical penetration arm to lift the mine out of the ground without instigating the detonation trigger. Once above the surface, the mine can be safely defused.
Jevit can be controlled from up to 300m away, meaning that nobody needs to risk their lives by getting too close to a danger zone. Even if something does go wrong, the bot is protected by explosive-proof metal plating. It can handle rugged terrain and, at only 600kg in weight, it can be easily transported.
Whilst the idea of Demine Robotics was born and raised in Canada, Yim returned home in 2017 to build and test Jevit in Cambodia. He's worked with a number of organisations, including Golden West Humanitarian Foundation and UN Peacekeeping Forces in Cambodia (NPMEC), to put the prototype to the test. So far, it's been a success.
"Our robot works," Yim states. "We tested Jevit under the observation against conditions set by NPMEC and successfully dug out landmines in their field without issues. Now, the next step is to improve the reliability, so we can put the machine into use. Our aim is to build solutions to clear indiscriminate weapons such as landmines, cluster munitions and improvised explosive devices. We want to save lives around the world."
By 2020, Demine Robotics hope to expand the use of Jevit to neighbouring countries, before a global expansion in 2025. The company is currently fundraising via Kickstarter and hope to raise enough to fine-tune Jevit whilst developing a new model.
According to Yim, his mother took him to Canada in 2006 to "have the education and opportunities to make a mark on the world." 13 years later, he's certainly on the path to doing just that.