A Hong Kong inventor whose ideas have been successfully utilised in international space programmes believes he has a solution to the deadly threat of landmines, which still plagues the rural populations of Cambodia and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
According to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor report, casualties - dead and maimed - attributed to mines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war (ERW) between 1999 and 2014 numbered 96,492, of which 46,775 were suffered in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ng Tze-chuen is a dentist with an impressive track record as an inventor. His Space Holinser Forceps concept for gripping objects in zero gravity was used by the European Space Agency's Beagle 2 Mars exploration project and he has developed 3D robotic concepts for brain surgery, yet, despite several visits to Cambodia and many meetings with officials and experts, his proposed solution to the problem of landmines and other ERW has been largely given the cold shoulder. He says one agency even privately dismissed him as a "nutcase" and others regard him as a "troublemaker".
"My proposal is a differential diagnostic robotic system to detect and identify the hidden object and quantify the amount of TNT contained in it," he says.
Ng's conceptual method is known as the Unmanned Rapid Eradication System (URES). It involves sniffer dogs (already commonly used in landmine detection) and, for initial surveys, a drone fitted with GPS, an electromagnetic metal detector and an ultrasound scanner. These are combined with a large bulldozer robot with three rotator arms fitted with sensors to undertake detection, classification and disposal of mines and unexploded ordnance.
The key aspects of the concept are safety - human operators are not exposed to risk - full assessment of a target before any action is taken and speed, because machines do the work.
"It's crazy to use human beings to detect mines," says Ng, but the truth is that minefields around the world are still cleared by villagers trained by NGOs. Manually locating small buried metallic targets and then working out whether they are deadly landmines, unexploded ordnance, harmless shell cases or even discarded food tins is dangerous, slow and complicated work.
When 122 countries signed the Mine Ban Treaty in December 1997, they also became legally obliged to finish landmine clearance within 10 years. Yet, it is estimated that 10 people still lose their life or a body part to ERW every day.
According to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Ban Landmines-Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC), as of January, there were still 33 nation signatories - including Cambodia and Thailand - to that treaty whose territory was not clear of landmines. Firoz Alizada, the ICBL-CMC's campaigns and communications manager, describes the landmine threat - which also plagues non-signatory nations Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar - in Southeast Asia as "chronic" and points out that, in 2014, ERW caused 2,082 casualties in the region.
"While mainland Southeast Asia accounts for about 3 per cent of the global population, it represents over 50 per cent of its casualties due to landmines, cluster munitions and other explosive remnants of war," Alizada says, and while there is much concern about donor fatigue and a lack of media interest in what seems to be a never-ending task, ERW remain a major source of anxiety for the people of Cambodia.
"A local taxi driver told me during my recent visit to Cambodia that any local over 50 years old with an intact family is extremely lucky," says Ng.
According to the Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority (CMAA), which is responsible for the regulation and coordination of mine action activities in the country, the northwestern regions bordering Thailand remain heavily affected. From 1979 to 2013, a total of 64,314 ERW casualties were recorded in Cambodia and 900,493 anti-personnel mines, 20,779 anti-tank mines and more than 2 million other ERW have been destroyed.
And while images of amputees, including children, whose lives have been devastated by ERW continue to cause shock and outrage, it is not only the deaths and injuries that cause problems. Just the threat, or fear, of landmines prevents land being cultivated, schools being built and commercial infrastructure, such as mobile phone masts, bridges and electricity supplies, being installed.
The number of casualties in Cambodia has plunged from 4,320 in 1996 to 111 in 2013 but many minefields remain. Alizada believes a lack of political will is the main reason for the delay in clearing them "in about 75 per cent of cases" while Ng points to a failure to use proven remote technology to address the problem.
"If you went to Mars to deal with a landmine, you can detect it and defuse it using remote robotics, so why not on Earth?
"[Being employed are] the same methods used in the first world war," says Ng, who can't understand why, in the age of mobile phone apps, wireless communications, drones, GPS and robotics, brave local villagers are still being asked to painstakingly edge their way across minefields on their hands and knees, with a metal detector and hand probes, to search for targets and mark them with flags.
It might be expected that any innovation proposed by a respected inventor that could save both lives and time would be enthusiastically embraced, or at least seriously evaluated. Instead, there is a perceptible coolness from those on the front line of humanitarian demining.
"We would not want our work to be used to illustrate why we need a specific new technology if the idea is unproven and/or untested," says Sean Sutton, of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG), one of the leading demining agencies in Cambodia. "A lot of ideas come up all the time and the vast majority have absolutely no practical utility but can create a lot of interest and encourage misconceptions."
Another leading demining agency in Cambodia is the Halo Trust. Its country manager, Matthew Hovell, explains that recruiting villagers as deminers gives them a paid career and an incentive and stake in restoring communities. Last month, his team was called out after a farmer was killed when his tractor detonated a landmine and, in February, they cleared a new school site in Ponleachey village, where a woman had detonated a mine while digging with her shovel.
"Back in the 1990s, we recruited from local militia to avoid ex-military types being tempted back to fighting. That generation is now retiring and have enough money to set up smallholdings or businesses that contribute to the local economy," says Hovell, who insists that some technology is utilised by Halo. However, he remains convinced, like most others on the front line, there is no magic solution and human beings remain the best option.
"These high-technology solutions can be very expensive and not so effective in highly vegetated areas that contain mines," he says, firmly rejecting the suggestion that, with US$30 million per year donated to the Cambodian government for mine-clearance projects and armies of NGO staff contributing to the local economy, there is no great incentive for the authorities to complete the task.
"It is not really possible for the Cambodian government to drag the problem out because of their commitment to the Mine Ban Treaty and the timescales contained in it," he says.
Cambodia was granted a 10-year extension to its commitment in 2009 and Hovell says that the time it is taking to rid the country of mines is a reflection of the scale of the problem - the result of three decades of war before 1991's Paris Peace Accords - and the difficulty of obtaining access to remote border regions.
"We never know exactly how many mines there are until we clear them but in the K5 minefield, near the border between Cambodia and Thailand, which is the third densest minefield in the world, we estimate there are about 2 million," says Hovell.
That represents a huge undertaking when each mine has to be individually detected, identified and dealt with by a person. It's also extremely dangerous.
"Between 1999 and 2014, more than 1,600 deminers were killed or injured [worldwide] while undertaking clearance operations," says Alizada, and these are casualties Ng believes are unnecessary.
"Wages are very low in Cambodia, so locals like demining because the pay is better but it is so slow, maybe only 10 metres per day working under the hot sun, and one mistake and you're finished," says the Hongkonger.
"They are clearing the ground for their families, for their fellow countrymen - they really are heroes," says Mark Ranson, director of Erowtec, a Hong Kong company that specialises in dealing with unexploded ordnance.
Ranson has 30 years of practical field experience of ERW remediation projects in Cambodia and other parts of Southeast Asia. He and a colleague, former Hong Kong police explosive ordnance disposal specialist Chris Jones, examine Ng's URES drawings and admit they can see some advantages to his approach, but insist the practical complications on the ground cannot be underestimated.
"When people hear the word 'minefield', they automatically think of a large, level grassy football field but, in reality, it could be a rocky riverbed, a swamp or a steep forested mountain slope," explains Ranson, who also believes that humans still make the best detectors. "You can't just take something the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and push it up a steep Cambodian mountainside with mature trees 18 inches apart. And there is nowhere handy to plug it in.
"There is a lot of merit in this idea but only if it works perfectly every time," he says, explaining there is no value to an area that "might" be clear of mines and that part of the challenge is winning the trust of the locals who will live and work on the land once it is released to them.
Ranson admits that there might be a great deal of "vested interest" in keeping the landmine issue alive but says it would be difficult to block a new idea if it worked well. So why are no remote technologies such as those suggested by Ng being used regularly in Cambodia when it was deemed necessary to obtain a 10-year extension to comply with treaty obligations and human deminers are being killed and injured every year?
"Maybe it's a question of unemployment," suggests Ng, whose concepts have earned praise from researchers working on landmine solutions such as Professor Adam Januszko, of the Military University of Technology, in Warsaw, Poland. Januszko is interested in collaborating with Ng on a European Defence Agency demining project - although that is subtly different to humanitarian demining.
Ng says that while local people could be trained to operate URES, a mere 10 per cent of the manpower would be required. Officials and NGOs might fear the short-term economic impact of solving the problem. Halo employs 1,100 deminers and the Cambodian Mine Action Centre about 1,700, and then there are those in the military and those working for other NGOs, such as MAG, that pride themselves on recruiting locally.
Employment is a key part of the humanitarian demining strategy - to break the cycle of poverty - and is useful in advancing human rights. The CMAA has instituted the Gender in Mine Action Plan and Halo says the employment of local women has played a significant part in bringing gender equality to remote and/or traditional communities. Amputees and the disabled have also been employed to clear mines.
"Humanitarian demining is just a small part of a much broader … effort to promote international human rights values in a post-conflict country," says Andy Smith, a landmine expert who has been involved with research and development (R&D) projects initiated by the United States Army, the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the Federal Institute for Materials Research and the European Union.
"In my opinion, the ability to learn, intuit danger and the self-preservation instinct of a human are far more sophisticated than can be found in any computer, never mind a low-cost computer," he says, suggesting there is a cynicism in the demining community based on bitter experience.
"For more than 20 years, the field people have been promised solutions that have not materialised and so they have little patience with the R&D community - and often do not help them to understand the real needs," says Smith.
And there have been plenty of solutions touted for the landmine issue, from rats trained to sniff out explosives and wind-powered giant footballs to huge flailing machines that detonate mines as they churn up the ground ahead of them. Few impress the experts with field experience.
There are some dissenting voices when it comes to human deminers but not many. Mine technology expert Dr Vernon Joynt concluded in a technical paper he wrote while a CSIR consultant in South Africa: "The management of humanitarian demining must reflect on the fact that the established techniques they are now supporting as the way to solve the big problem are too slow, not cost effective and causing too many casualties."
Ng emphasises that his drawings are "ideas only" and he is not suggesting he has a tried and tested panacea for all minefields in all conditions. He also insists "star wars" technology has no place in the debate, only proven techniques suitable for remote locations.
According to CMAA, in order to address the remaining landmine problem, Cambodia will require US$455 million, and more financial assistance to rid the country of other ERW.
Some might think a tiny percentage of that sum might sensibly be invested in fully evaluating Ng's ideas with landmine experts on the ground. Ng says he would be happy to donate his time and ideas for free and even if his idea proved useful only on favourable terrain or saved just one life, it would surely be worth taking seriously.
Nevertheless, most experts in the field believe only human demining teams are capable of doing the job - however long that may take.