A 5-year-old plays with his friends on the outskirts of a town in rural Afghanistan. As he runs around, a smooth, green object shaped like a butterfly catches his eye. He picks up the object and goes to show his friends.
The object in his hand is a PFM-1 “butterfly” blast mine, which has one purpose: to maim, not to kill. Left over from the Soviet-Afghan conflict, these mines are ubiquitous throughout Afghanistan, with an estimated 10 million of them still out there.
Jasper Baur, a sophomore at Binghamton University, is part of a team developing a means to detect these mines using sensors mounted on drones.
Butterfly mines are Russian-made plastic explosives that trigger once 25 pounds of cumulative pressure has been applied.
“It doesn’t even really kill people, it’ll just blow off limbs,” Baur says. “And children play with them because they look like toys. It’s really bad.”
These mines have stuck around for so long because they cannot be found with a metal detector, and there’s no other means of locating them safely.
The team hopes thermal imaging can change that.
At sunrise, the mines heat up faster than the environment surrounding them, and they take longer to cool after sundown. A mine can be detected by looking for heat differences during these times.
The researchers mounted a thermal imaging camera onto a quadcopter drone to see if they could detect the mines safely and accurately. The drone takes thermal pictures every few seconds while flying that are later analyzed by a computer.
The team first tested the device in a controlled environment by hovering it over mine replicas in different sandbox environments, with successful results. This fall, researchers finished their first pilot study in a state park near Binghamton, scattering replicas throughout the park and flying the drone over to detect them.
The team is processing the data from that study, and the device is nearly finished. The researchers’ task now is to work out the kinks in detecting the mines, focusing on how easily they can be detected and how many “false alarms” (things that look like mines that are not) come up.
Eventually, they hope to develop software that allows a computer to use the mines’ temperature values and scan through photos to detect them. Baur presented this research in November at the American Geophysical Union meeting in New Orleans.
Baur, a geology major and a fine arts minor, started this research in fall 2016, when he joined the Geospatial Remote Sensing stream of the Freshman Research Immersion program.
“Jasper is an ultra-high-achieving student,” says Timothy De Smet, research educator. “What makes him stand out is how much he actually cares.”
Baur, who plans to go to graduate school for geology or geophysics somewhere in California, says he became interested in geology as a kid.
“I had a big rock collection, I always liked collecting them,” he says. “Studying the land is very applicable to me. I was outside the other day, and noticed ‘Oh wow, this surface process is happening, and I know why.’”
Baur also has a passion for art, especially acrylic painting. He is vice president of the Binghamton University Fine Arts Society, a club that meets weekly for drawing sessions and monthly for gallery viewings in Binghamton.
“I really enjoy creating art in a social setting,” he says. “I’ll have my first gallery showing this December.”