Company develops robots to clear deadly land mines
By Mike Strathdee
As printed in The Marketplace - November/December 2017
For Richard Yim, building a business to speed up the elimination of land mines is neither just a good business opportunity nor an abstract idea for making the world a better place.
Yim knows firsthand the human cost of leftover bombs from bygone wars. He and his family came to Canada from Cambodia when he was 13, five years after losing an aunt to a land mine. It’s still something that the family struggles to understand.
His parents wanted Richard and his older brother “to have that freedom and opportunity” to walk where they wanted without fear of maiming or death.” Yim is grateful to live in a country without “danger from landmines and other things. We can make something of ourselves.”
His Cambodian homeland has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with four to six million land mines.
Estimates on the number of people killed by land mines every year range from 4,000 to 6,000.
Anti-personnel landmines were banned under the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction (or Mine Ban Convention), adopted in 1997. More than 150 countries have joined this treaty. (The U.S. is not a signatory to the treaty, but said in 2014 it would abide by the treaty, save for mines used in the Korean Peninsula.)
As many as 100 million mines in 70 countries are making large land areas impassable. Cambodia, Columbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, parts of northern Africa controlled by the Boko Haram terrorist group and Ukraine are some of the most heavily afflicted. In many areas, much needed fertile land cannot be cultivated due to the buried explosives.
That makes land mine clearance a major economic development issue, not just a humanitarian issue.
Mines in Ukraine will take 10 years to clear. “It’s not a one-to-one pace of planting and clearing.”
While there was a surge of interest in land mine removal after a global treaty banned their use 20 years ago, public interest has waned and donor fatigue set in.
Yim wants to reengage public interest in ending the scourge of unremoved mines by providing new technology that will accelerate mine removal. “We can’t go back in time to remove land mines people stepped on,” he said. “But we can remove the mines the next generation might step on. We have a strong sense of purpose in doing this.”
Originally known as Landmine Boys, the company was started in 2015 by five University of Waterloo engineering students. Three of those people have moved on to other pursuits. Remaining co-founders Yim and Christian Lee are pursuing commercialization of two products — a small scale excavator, perhaps three feet square, that can unearth anti-personnel land mines without detonating them, and a defuser robot that injects chemicals to neutralize the land mine. They currently have two other staff, and hope to hire another engineer in coming months.
Conversations with several land mine-clearing organizations have led them to realize that the biggest need and market opportunity is in providing a mine excavating robot.
Lee, who met Yim when they were first-year engineering students, originally dreamed of becoming a doctor. “I always wanted to pay something back to the world,” he said.
As the main engineering technologist for the company, Lee is gratified to know that he can help save lives by applying his technical skills.
Yim and Lee have travelled to Cambodia this year to test their excavator prototype. Demine Robotics is currently working on a mobile platform. They hope to have this ready before year-end and do an in-house demo on a simulated mine.
The company holds a provisional patent for two of the technologies they have developed. They hope to file several more patent applications by year-end.
They currently have offices at the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Waterloo’s Conrad Grebel University College and at Velocity Garage in Kitchener, which bills itself as the world’s biggest start-up accelerator, housing 80 start-ups in a 37,000-square-foot former tannery building.
Next steps include doing a live test in April 2018, with a goal of sending a working excavator to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) doing land mine clearing in Cambodia by this time next year. They will also decide by late 2018 whether to do their own manufacturing or contract out the work.
Yim sees his company’s excavator as complementing other approaches. Recently, trained rats have been used to detect mine placement without detonating them. The three stages to solving the problem are locating mines, unearthing them and defusing them. Rats are good at finding the mines, and Demine Robotics is focused on unearthing them. “We can work together well with other organizations to improve the system.”
That will take more funding. Yim is working to raise an additional $200,000 in venture capital to get their machine working in the field.
Achieving Yim’s long-term goal of “a world without land mines” will require resolving the question of who pays the billions of dollars required for their removal.
Many partners “will have to come together in a very unique way,” he concedes. NGOs with experience clearing mines, governments who dictate vision and strategy and investors “who want to see the world a better place” will all be needed.
“The merit of the technology itself will not make an impact in the industry. We need people to come together and be united in the land mine clearing issue.’’ ◆