Math students help find lost explosives

By Sarelle Azuelos

British Columbia may not seem like the probable home of an unexploded ordnance research team, but that is where a group of math students are working hard this summer to discover new ways to find the dangerous explosives.

University of Calgary sixth-year math and philosophy major Steve Coyne is one of 30 students attending the Mathematics of Information Technology and Complex Systems industrial mathematics summer school at Simon Fraser University. MITACS is part of a federal program that combines federal, provincial and corporate funding to study complex problems. The organization picked students from Canada, the U.S., Denmark, China, Mexico and Germany for its second annual summer school and split them up into groups of six to tackle five different issues.

“There is a company called Sky Research that’s interested in looking at land that has unexploded ordnance on it, for example former testing ranges, and using magnetic properties of all the shells and sort of dangerous things that have been fired to generate a magnetic map to find out where to dig and remove the ordinance,” explained Coyne, who is currently staying in the SFU dorm rooms. “What we’re working on in particular is how to tell the difference between unexploded ordnance and safer things like shrapnel and gardening implements. It turns out right now that they spend an overwhelming amount of their time digging up useless things.”

Sky Research, one of MITACS sponsors, is an Oregon-based company which uses airplanes, helicopters and special vehicles to make the magnetic maps. They have previously used the technology to find dangerous leftovers at a Montana National Guard firing range, but it could become part of an international effort.

“Imagine you have a shell and it hits the ground at a particular velocity, what we’re looking at is what occurs on the impact on a physical level,” said Coyne. “If the magnetization is reduced, that’s a really good hint that it’s unexploded ordnance rather than something mundane and safe.”

The team uses data collected by Sky Research on test ranges to build mathematical models. While the data is limited, the models are built to predict what different ordnance would look like on a map.

MITACS program director Rebeccah Marsh said over 100 students applied to the competitive program this year. MITACS also works to connect professors and students with corporate sponsors outside of the camp to further mathematical research across Canada. Small Energy Group, a management consultant firm, is another company funding the camp this year. They advise larger companies on the best methods to reduce their energy consumption to save money and resources, but need a detailed model to give correct estimates.

“Buildings are responsible for over one third of the world’s energy use,” said Marsh. “[Small Energy sees] this as a way to make an impact in decreasing overall energy use and moving toward a sustainable community. We have students who are working together to help model the activity within a building.”

Coyne was happy to be accepted to the project because of the experience it will give him outside of the traditional math taught at the U of C.

“It’s very unique for an undergraduate to be given this level of trust and creative control on a real life project,” he said. “If we were to go into a regular co-op internship, it would be four to eight months of being told exactly what to do. Whereas here, our approach to the problem was completely dreamt up by the people in the group.”

Marsh agreed the exposure to demanding industry problems will help students when looking for future employment.

“As students, especially in mathematical sciences, we don’t necessarily know what kind of jobs are out there outside of academia,” she said. “I think this shows them that there are interesting, challenging, high-level jobs outside of academia as well.”

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