SCIENCE

Dutch Afghan refugee invents demining device

Dutch designer hopes wind-driven gadget that looks like a dandelion saves lives in homeland

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2013, 4:06am
AFP

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Childhood toys lost in a war-torn field have inspired an odd-looking invention which its young Dutch inventor hopes can help save thousands of lives and limbs in his native Afghanistan.

Decades of war, notably the 1979-89 Soviet intervention, have left the rugged Afghan countryside littered with landmines that continue to exact a merciless toll, mainly on children.

Now, in a small workshop in the industrial heart of the southern city of Eindhoven, 29-year-old Massoud Hassani screws in the last leg of an ingenious, wind-driven gadget he built to clear anti-personnel mines. He calls the device, the size of a golf buggy, a "mine kafon".

"The idea comes from our childhood toys which we once played with as kids on the outskirts of Kabul," Hassani said as he rolled out the device for a demonstration.

Short for kafondan, which in Hassani's native Dari language means "something that explodes", the kafon consists of 150 bamboo legs screwed into a central metal ball.

At the other end of each leg, a round, white plastic disc the size of a small frisbee is attached via a black rubber car part for drive shafts, called a CV-joint boot.

Assembled, the spherical kafon looks like a giant tumbleweed or seed head. Like a dandelion puff, it moves with the wind. It is designed to be blown around, exploding anti-personnel mines as it rolls on the ground. With the legs made from bamboo, they are easily replaceable. Once they are blown off it's simply a matter of screwing on others, which means the kafon can be reused.

Inside the steel ball, a GPS device plots the kafon's path as it rolls through an area that may be mined and shows on a computerised map exactly where it is safe to walk.

Hassini is still in the testing stages, notably to make sure there is 100 per cent contact between the kafon's "feet" and the ground, so no mine is missed.

But initial trials - some using explosives with the Dutch Defence Force and an rolling test in Morocco this year - showed promising results.

The designer and his brother Mahmud, 27, are now looking for sponsors, notably through an online platform. They hope to raise €123,000 (HK$1.25 million) in donations by next month to fund development and take the device to Afghanistan in August for more trials.

It will be the brothers' first time in Afghanistan since fleeing Taliban-ruled Kabul, Massoud first in 1998 then Mahmud two years later. They made their way to the Netherlands, where they were accepted as refugees and today hold Dutch citizenship.

Massoud landed a place at the Design Academy Eindhoven, regarded as one of the world's foremost industrial design schools, where he first conceived the project in 2010.

"I had to design a toy from my childhood," said the inventor. "I went back into my childhood in a dream. I saw the toys we made and how they rolled into a minefield. We could never get them back."