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Published in Prospect, 25 Aug 2010

Never let it be said that rubbish collectors aren’t some of the bravest people on Earth. I don’t mean the nice people who empty your bin, but the experts who scour the forgotten fields of past conflicts, first with sniffer dogs, then metal detectors, and finally with long-bladed knives, stretched out on their stomachs while nervously probing the ground ahead.

Their usual name is minesweepers, but their profession would be more accurately categorised as waste removal. The latest UN figures estimate that there are more than 100m landmines in the world, which kill some 5,000 people every year. Yet minesweepers spend 90 per cent of their time digging up pieces of harmless junk on the off-chance it could cause an explosion. “You get a signal from your metal detector, and you don’t know what it is,” says Phil Halford, who works for the Mines Advisory Group (MAG). He has spent his working life clearing explosives everywhere from Afghanistan to Sudan. “It could be a piece of tin, a piece of scrap, whatever. The biggest problem is false-positive detection.”

But now an international group of scientists has come up with a solution. Called RASCAN, their device uses radar to not only spot a buried object, but to pick out a rough image. It could help minesweepers across the world skip over rubbish and focus on their real job. Colin Windsor, a retired British nuclear physicist working on the project, estimates that this could at least double the detection rate. […]

The rest of this article is available here.