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Scientists from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem have developed a new system that uses a combination of lasers and glowing bacteria for unexploded ordnance and remote landmine detection. The system is based on the observation that the landmines leak minute quantities of explosive vapors, which accumulate in the soil above them and serve as markers for their presence, reported recently. The researchers have molecularly engineered live bacteria that emit a fluorescent signal when they come into contact with these vapors. This signal can be recorded and quantified from a remote location.

The bacteria were encapsulated in small polymeric beads, which were scattered across the surface of a test field in which real antipersonnel landmines were buried. Using a laser-based scanning system, the test field was remotely scanned and the location of the buried landmines was determined. This appears to be the first demonstration of a functional standoff landmine detection system.

“Our field data shows that engineered biosensors may be useful in a landmine detection system.” said Prof. Shimshon Belkin, from the Hebrew University’s Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences, who was responsible for genetically engineering the bacterial sensors.

“For this to become a reality, several challenges need to be overcome, such as enhancing the sensitivity and stability of the sensor bacteria, improving scanning speeds to cover large areas, and making the scanning apparatus more compact so it can be used on board a light unmanned aircraft or drone,” Belkin added.

The requirement for safe and efficient technologies for detecting buried landmines and unexploded ordnance is a humanitarian issue of immense global proportions. About half a million people around the world are suffering from mine-inflicted injuries, and each year an additional 15 to 20 thousand more people are injured or killed by these devices. Currently, over 100 million such devices are still buried in over 70 countries.