Helping rid the world of mines

By Mike Bowerman

Two-hundred and fifty million landmines are the disease; the University of Calgary faculty of Engineering is the cure. Four mechanical and manufacturing engineering students won second place in a national competition held by Mines Action Canada for their design of a solar-powered battery recharger for mine detection equipment. The team members included Aparna Verma, Jason Thomas, Cam Rankin and Michael Hand.

"As part of our fourth-year senior design course we go out into the community and find projects our students can make a contribution to," said U of C engineering professor Daryl Caswell. "We had wanted to work with Mines Action Canada for a while and we ran two projects for Mines Action this time."

Those most affected by landmines are the world’s rural poor, who must garner their living from the same land that is riddled with the devices. The result is death or amputations for tens of thousands of men, women and children who accidentally stumble upon these remnants of political strife.

Now graduated from mechanical engineering, team member Aparna Verma appreciated the opportunity to make a contribution to solving the problem.

"If I’m going to be designing something, I want to be doing something that will be helping people," observed Verma. "People put these landmines in these fields and walk away. For 50 or 100 years, in places where people are going without food, there’s hundreds of acres of land that people can’t use for farming because of landmines."
Cam Rankin, who is completing his manufacturing engineering degree, agreed.

"The founding belief in engineering is to better the quality of human life," Rankin noted. "This project helps to reduce human suffering since it’s usually kids and farmers who find these things, usually kids that become amputees as a result of this. If you care about people having food to eat, this issue directly affects that. If people can’t till their land because there are mines in it, then they can’t eat."

MAC requested the recharger in response to some of the practical difficulties de-miners face in the countries they work in. Infrastructure is generally less sophisticated than that in Canada, making electricity scarce and resulting in days lost commuting to and from power sources to recharge equipment. The purpose of the project was making the process more efficient for the de-miners.

"Our goal was not to re-invent the wheel," said Verma. "These technologies already exist; we took a solar-powered battery charger and concentrated on making it portable, easy to use and nearly indestructible–as simple as possible for the people who use it and as reliable as we can."

Completion of the full-year design course is mandatory for mechanical and manufacturing engineering students. During that time the bulk of the students’ efforts are focused towards the completion of a design project. While some projects are more commercially-oriented like a salad spinner, around half have medical uses and others are humanitarian in nature. The students found the hands-on application of their skills instructive.

"The design course is a very valuable course for us to take," said Rankin. "Even if you have problems, you are always interacting with customers and your group. The course marries the technical and soft skills that are needed in engineering today."

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