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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University July 19, 2004 | Vol. 33 No. 40
Low-Cost Robot Could Locate Land Mines in Rugged Terrain

The robotic land-mine detector was designed and built by four undergraduates in the Whiting School's Engineering Design Project course. Pictured from the left are Dat Truong, project sponsor Carl V. Nelson of APL, Edoardo Biancheri, Dan Hake and Landon Unninayar.

WSE students devise remote-controlled vehicle with camera, paint marker

By Phil Sneiderman

Four Johns Hopkins undergraduate engineering students have designed and built a remote-controlled robotic vehicle to find deadly land mines in rugged terrain and mark their location with a spray of paint. The prototype has been given to professional explosive detection researchers as a model for a low-cost robot that humanitarian groups and military troops could use to prevent mine-related deaths and injuries.

The project resulted from a challenge to the students by Carl V. Nelson, a principal staff physicist at the university's Applied Physics Laboratory. Nelson had developed sensors to help detect land mines but didn't have a device to carry these sensors into areas of thick vegetation, where explosives are often hidden. He presented his requirements last fall to a team of students enrolled in the two-semester Engineering Design Project course offered by the Whiting School's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

"I asked the students to develop a vehicle that could get off the road, off the clear paths and go into rougher terrain like bushes and high grass, where mine detection would be difficult to do by hand," Nelson said.

The need for such a device was clear. Nelson pointed to a United Nations estimate that more than 100 million land mines are deployed in 70 countries worldwide, planted during military conflicts dating back as far as World War II. The cheap but highly dangerous devices can be set off by civilians as well as soldiers, and more than 2,000 people are killed or maimed by mine explosions each month, the United Nations estimates. Nelson is one of many researchers looking for safe, efficient and relatively inexpensive ways to locate the hazards.

To carry Nelson's sensors through rough terrain, the Johns Hopkins students designed a two-piece vehicle that rolls on tank-type treads. The front portion moves the robot, using two cordless power drill motors connected to a sealed lead-acid battery. Atop the drive segment is a color video camera, enabling a human operator to see what the robot encounters.

The drive segment is attached to a second unit that houses a simple metal detection coil obtained from an off-the-shelf treasure-hunting device. (This metal detector would be replaced by more sophisticated sensors if the model is utilized by funded researchers.) The rear segment also is equipped with a small storage tank and a spray paint nozzle to mark the spot where a possible mine is located. The vehicle can spray about 40 times before the paint tank must be recharged.

To guide the robot from a safe distance, the students constructed a battery-powered controller with a joystick to steer the vehicle. The controller also features a small video screen displaying real-time images from the robot's camera. When metal is detected, a "beep" is heard over a speaker on the controller or through headphones worn by the operator. A switch on the controller can then activate the paint sprayer to mark the spot. The robot's camera transmits video up to about 100 feet from the controller; the vehicle's movement can be controlled from a distance of about 500 feet.

The robotic vehicle was built largely with plastic and other nonmetal parts to reduce costs and weight. In addition, using nonmetal parts avoids triggering false positive readings from the mine detector. The two-segment design also spreads out the robot's weight, making the device less likely to set off a mine.

The four inventors were Edoardo Biancheri, of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; Dan Hake, from Wilton, Conn.; Dat Truong, from Methuen, Mass.; and Landon Unninayar, from Columbia, Md. Hake, Truong and Unninayar were mechanical engineering majors who graduated from Johns Hopkins in May. Biancheri plans to complete his undergraduate studies in December with a double major in mechanical engineering and economics.

Working within a sponsored budget of $8,000, the students spent about $5,000 to design and build their prototype. They estimate the vehicle could be mass-produced for $1,000 or less, not including the cost of more sophisticated detection sensors. Nelson plans to show the prototype to his U.S. Army funding sponsors as an example of the type of low-cost mine detection robot that could help prevent death and injury worldwide.

The land-mine-detection robot was one of nine Johns Hopkins projects completed this year by undergraduates in the engineering design course taught by Andrew F. Conn. Each team of three or four students, working within budgets of up to $10,000, had to design a device, purchase or fabricate the parts and assemble the final product. Corporations, government agencies and nonprofit groups provided the assignments and funding.To see a video about the project, go to


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