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Friday, 17 March, 2000, 10:46 GMT
Virgin's mine-spy in the sky
The Mineseeker balloon may be a breakthrough
The Mineseeker balloon may be a breakthrough
UK tycoon Sir Richard Branson has unveiled plans to use airships to clear landmines from former war zones.

Tests of the balloons have already been carried out, using new radar equipment capable of mapping mines at a rate of 100 square metres per second.

Landmines are the scourge of the modern world, but we now have a real chance to make a difference

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard, chairman of the Virgin group, described the combination of airship and radar as a 'breakthrough' in mine-clearance - a cause championed by his friend, the late Diana Princess of Wales.

"The idea came to me watching a report on the evening television news that highlighted the dangers of de-mining," he said.

Sir Richard is a keen balloonist
Sir Richard is a keen balloonist
He appealed for "big commercial sponsors" to pledge the millions of dollars that will be needed for further development.

The innovative radar equipment has been developed by an agency of the UK Ministry of Defence, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA).

Virgin has funded the technology so far, and the trials, described as "extremely promising", have been carried out using some of Sir Richard's fleet of 14 "lightships".

Worldwide landmines kill or maim 70 people per day.

Mine facts
120 million mines deployed worldwide
One million mines buried in 1997
100,000 mines made safe in 1997
Clearing all mines in Croatia at current rate would take 690 years
The United Nations says an area equivalent to France and Germany is currently rendered unusable by minefields, including prime agricultural land in countries such as Mozambique.

There are at least 64 affected countries, including some where minefields date back to the World War II.

Intelligence-gathering on the location of mines, based in the first instance on local hearsay, is notoriously unreliable.

The balloon can map 100 sq m per second
The balloon can map 100 sq m per second
Many minefields go unidentified until they cause an injury, while in other cases land is unnecessarily cordoned off.

Searching for mines manually is slow and can be dangerous.

"Landmines are the scourge of the modern world, but we now have a real chance to make a difference," Sir Richard said.

The new radar system developed by DERA is known as Ultra-Wide Band Synthetic Aperture Radar (UWB SAR).

It is capable of penetrating through vegetation and ground to detect a buried plastic mine.

The smallest targets detected in the trials, held in Worcestershire in January, were 10cm (four inches) in diameter.

A press statement issued by the Mineseeker project said the science and technology involved is "particularly challenging" and will take two more years to perfect.
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See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Landmine clearance breakthrough
04 Nov 99 | Sci/Tech
Shuttle fuel clears landmines
20 Jun 99 | Sci/Tech
Making a beeline for mines
08 Feb 00 | South Asia
Landmine fears in Sri Lanka
17 Jan 00 | Entertainment
Singer Crow backs landmine campaign
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