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Fighting land mines with darts

Naval researchers have a plan for spraying minefields with thousands of small projectiles as a way to clear a safe path for troops.

There's no easy way to clear a path through a minefield. Options range from tracked vehicles pummeling the ground with whirling flails to individual soldiers gingerly poking the ground and then defusing mines one by one. The Defense Department, cognizant of the need for both speed and safety in beach landings and other operations, is looking at another alternative--masses of small darts raining down on suspect terrain.

The April edition of Popular Science offers a quick look at that laboratory project, which falls under the auspices of the Office of Naval Research. (The ONR isn't just about ships and submarines--its projects range from Humvee replacements to the biomimetic robolobster.) In this scheme, a precision-guided bomb would release 6,500 darts that would cover a 60-foot circle and penetrate two feet of sand or seven feet of water, the magazine reports. The seven-inch Venom darts would either detonate the land mines through impact or, with their coating of a compound called DETA, cause mines to essentially overheat and self-destruct.

(An undated document from the ONR project leader, Brian Almquist, offers more insights on the effort.)

The system won't be ready anytime soon, however. Backers say the military probably wouldn't deploy the system until 2015, pending further R&D and the inevitable bureaucratic back and forth.

And even then, don't count on the dart system helping out with humanitarian, postconflict demining efforts, where low-tech approaches are still the order of the day. It's bound to be far too expensive.