Ukraine Is Riddled With Land Mines. Drones and AI Can Help

Ukraine Is Riddled With Land Mines. Drones and AI Can Help

Early on a June morning in 2023, my colleagues and I drove down a bumpy dirt road north of Kyiv in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Armed Forces were conducting training exercises nearby, and mortar shells arced through the sky. We arrived at a vast field for a technology demonstration set up by the United Nations. Across the 25-hectare field—that’s about the size of 62 American football fields—the U.N. workers had scattered 50 to 100 inert mines and other ordnance. Our task was to fly our drone over the area and use our machine learning software to detect as many as possible. And we had to turn in our results within 72 hours.

The scale was daunting: The area was 10 times as large as anything we’d attempted before with our drone demining startup,
Safe Pro AI. My cofounder Gabriel Steinberg and I used flight-planning software to program a drone to cover the whole area with some overlap, taking photographs the whole time. It ended up taking the drone 5 hours to complete its task, and it came away with more than 15,000 images. Then we raced back to the hotel with the data it had collected and began an all-night coding session.

We were happy to see that our custom machine learning model took only about 2 hours to crunch through all the visual data and identify potential mines and ordnance. But constructing a map for the full area that included the specific coordinates of all the detected mines in under 72 hours was simply not possible with any reasonable computational resources. The following day (which happened to coincide with the short-lived
Wagner Group rebellion), we rewrote our algorithms so that our system mapped only the locations where suspected land mines were identified—a more scalable solution for our future work.

In the end we detected 74 mines and ordnance scattered across the surface of that enormous field, and the U.N. deemed our results impressive enough to invite us back for a second round of demonstrations. While we were in Ukraine, we also demonstrated our technology for the
State Special Transportation Service, a branch of the Ukrainian military responsible for keeping roads and bridges open.

All our hard work paid off. Today, our technology is being used by several humanitarian nonprofits detecting land mines in Ukraine, including the
Norwegian People’s Aid and the HALO Trust, which is the world’s largest nonprofit dedicated to clearing explosives left behind after wars. Those groups are working to make Ukraine’s roads, towns, and agricultural fields safe for the Ukrainian people. Our goal is to make our technology accessible to every humanitarian demining operation, making their jobs safer and more efficient. To that end, we’re deploying and scaling up—first across Ukraine, and soon around the world.

The Scale of the Land-Mine Problem

The remnants of war linger long after conflicts have died down. Today, an estimated 60 countries are still contaminated by mines and unexploded ordnance, according…

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The post “Ukraine Is Riddled With Land Mines. Drones and AI Can Help” by Jasper Baur was published on 04/25/2024 by