Saturday, June 28, 2008

Football legend Sir Bobby Charlton has launched a new campaign he calls “There Must be a Better Way” to find a faster method to clear anti-personnel landmines. The initiative which comes under his “Laureus Sport for Good Foundation” and involves physicists, mathematicians and electronic engineers from the University of Manchester and Lancaster University. In addition the Mines Advisory Group, a mine clearance charity, and the security systems company Rapiscan are involved.

Charlton first became interested in the problem of clearing anti-personnel landmines while visiting Bosnia on a Laureus funded Spirit of Soccer camp. He was appalled by the injuries he saw, especially to children, caused by abandoned anti-personnel mines. Later his visited Cambodia where there are estimated to be four to six million mines. Charlton was told it would take 100 years to clear the mines.

On the way back to Manchester, passing through airport metal detectors, he thought that surely there must be a better way to detect landmines than the laborious method he had seen using only a metal detector and a bayonet. As the mines are made mainly of plastic and have only a small amount of metal every piece of metal including shrapnel must be investigated to see if it is a mine.

He contacted Rapiscan and through them the University of Manchester to see if there was anyone who could help. The University has a number of scientists and engineers with relevant experience, including a project EMBody to develop the next generation walk through metal detector, in collaboration with Rapiscan and Manchester Airport, and work on a scanning metal detector used to image steel reinforcing bars in concrete.

On June 12th a demonstration was arranged at a disused quarry where Sir Bobby and the Professors of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Physics were shown the power of explosives. This included a demonstration where an explosive charge of about 50g of high explosive, about the same amount as a medium sized landmine, was placed under a sand-filled Wellington boot. The charge was detonated with a resounding bang that echoed around the quarry. The boot was projected tens of metres in the air. And when examined the toe had been cut off and the rubber shredded. The shock wave from the explosives thumped the chests of the scientists even at a safe distance. One commented that there was no chance of using delicate instrumentation anywhere near a possible explosion and they had to seek simple solutions.

“Last time I saw a boot fly through the air like that it was against Bolton” said Charlton, but there was a sombre but excited mood as the scientists headed back to the University, buzzing with ideas.

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