Inventor of Wind-Powered Minefield Clearer Turns to Drones

Perhaps the most insidious danger from the millions of landmines scattered around current and former warzones worldwide, accounting for thousands of deaths every year, is how relatively little information is available about them.

That changed slightly in 2011, when Afghanistan native Massoud Hassani, who grew up next to a minefield outside Kabul, first gained international attention for his invention ” Mine Kafon,” a work of art that uses wind power to roll across and help clear certain minefields. Initial coverage by news outlets such as The New York Times and AFP soon gave way to a pop culture following that garnered millions of page views for videos documenting how the Mine Kafon Ball works.

One of the first versions of the device is now archived at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and has won numerous design, entrepreneurial and humanitarian awards.

Yet much work remains for Hassani, particularly for an issue that still largely relies on techniques derived during World War II. His company Mine Kafon is now investing in drone technology to be able to clear minefields on more rugged or inaccessible terrain.

Hassani spoke with U.S. News from his home in the Netherlands to discuss the effects of his work, his hopes for the future of international demining efforts and what’s next for Mine Kafon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why is it important for Mine Kafon to garner pop culture support, in addition to the news and scientific attention?

My background is as a designer, in art, so all of my connections are with this type of people. When my project was presented for the first time, that was in 2011, so that caught the first round of attention from The New York Times and AFP, but also a lot of famous bloggers. MOMA acquired it for their permanent collection.

After that, I was traveling mostly for two years to raise awareness, because I noticed there is not a lot going on about this topic. Because I was being interviewed a lot, I was researching to get information to talk about and there was not a lot of information available. The U.N. website published really old data from 2001 and we were 10 years after that.

In my opinion, there was nothing going on publicity-wise. When there’s no publicity, there will be no innovation, because that’s how it works nowadays — people like to work about things that are known. And to have innovation, it’s important we talk about it, since landmines are humanitarian problem that won’t be solved only by a government or private NGOs.

Now we have so much technology available, so much knowledge available. We’re going to the moon and Mars, we’re making fancy, high-tech products. But in the field of demining, not so much.

What has been the international response, both from developing countries where landmines are a problem and from other countries trying to help?

We’ve gotten a lot of response from the countries which are affected, like Angola and Vietnam, where the locals are still feeling the effects. They share their own ideas — they’re affected directly and constantly asking us to help them, or to help make something for them.

New demining companies also are interested in high-tech products and innovation. They see an opportunity to use these products in the future.

So there’s a whole new type of community coming alive, a whole new business case that’s becoming alive because of this new evolution. When I do a presentation, often people come up to me and say, “Oh, I didn’t know landmines still exist,” they get very emotional and they cry. These are mostly students or people just from companies and so on, not people really involved in land mines.

That was for me a very challenging aspect. I think Mine Kafon was a big success for a few years, and then I thought, OK, we have to innovate by ourselves. In talking about this project from 2011 to 2014, nothing changed with the demining organizations and governments.

Where do you find your support?

We’ve done a Kickstarter campaign twice and raised more than a 100,000 euros ($116,000). I sell art pieces, as well as merchandise. We also got investments from our region. LIOF, an investment firm in the Netherlands which invests in local companies, saw our business case and thought it was really interesting. They said, if your technique is going to work out, there are hundreds of millions of landmines. Even if you can cover only 30 percent to 40 percent, you can still succeed with this project.

They see the commercial aspect in this project. Our products are ready to be sold. We already have a lot of pre-orders in the Middle East and other countries. These people are now the new generation which are investing in this technology. These are governments, private companies and locals who want to take the initiative. Demining companies have tried to do it for a long time. Either they have to innovate for themselves or they have to use different products, or they’ll be replaced by new guys.

Where in the world is your technology used?

Currently, our attention goes to the Middle East and North Africa, especially in the Middle East because the terrain and environment is most suitable for our products. It’s flat plains and desert, so the drones can fly there, the robots can work more easily.

In other regions they are interested in new types of technology because they really want to apply it — in South Korea near North Korea, their border has a lot of landmines.

[ MORE: 2 Koreas begin removing DMZ mines.]

It’s interesting because land is very valuable, right? But when there are landmines, people close [off] big spaces because of the danger, so these places become unattractive and they’re not used anymore. These countries really want to use their own land again.

In Afghanistan, we have a lot of minerals, and people want to start businesses to extract them. But we also have millions of landmines.

So what’s next for Mine Kafon?

In the last two to three years we’ve been finalizing our drone technology because those platforms need to be reliable the most. We have tried other types of commercial drones, but the flight time is usually really bad, like only 20 minutes. They can’t handle every payload, and they can’t handle rough temperatures.

With ours, wind, rain, sun are no problem. They can fly up to an hour and the payload is roughly 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

These are not done by any other drone company. We also make robots connected with the drones, different types of robots that can work on different landscapes, like high grass.

Our next goal is developing sensors, to penetrate the ground, or detect mines or even smell them. And we can use existing sensors that governments or companies are using and want to fix to our drones.

Do you feel the need to gain pop-culture attention again?

Well, we do automatically, because drone technology is already pop culture. The guys who come to work with us really are young innovators — from Canada, the U.S., people who have worked on Tesla or hyperloops (a theoretical transportation system). These people have interest in this type of technology because it really is pop culture. It’s electric. It’s autonomous. It’s about flying.

It’s interesting, because this started with art, now it’s art culture, then art pop culture and now we are high-tech pop culture.

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Inventor of Wind-Powered Minefield Clearer Turns to Drones originally appeared on usnews.com