Eliminate “Devil's Weapons” Startup Challenge December 7 16:45

Landmines, also known as "Devil's Weapons," continue to torment people around the world.

Landmines, once planted, remain even after conflicts end, injuring or killing innocent civilians.

Efforts to remove landmines are continuing in various places, but the work is side by side with the danger of life.

Is it possible to use Japanese robot technology to solve these problems?

We followed the challenges of Japanese startup companies.

(Economic Department reporter Keiichi Yoshida)

Japanese robots go to minefields in Cambodia

This time, landmine removal robots were introduced in Cambodia in Southeast Asia.

Landmine damage left over from the civil war that lasted until the 1990s continues to this day, and more than 1,100 people are said to have been killed or injured in the last ten years alone.

Local governments and NPOs are still working to remove these landmines.

First, use a metal detector to identify potential landmines.

Then, people use shovels and other tools to carefully dig up the soil so as not to touch the detonator of the mine.

It is life-threatening work that requires extreme stress.

The aim of introducing the robot this time is to enable such work to be performed safely.

In mid-November this year, operation began in the minefields in the northwestern part of Cambodia.

The robot has a working arm attached to a car body with a total length of about 2 meters.

Workers operate from a distance of 15 meters or more to ensure safety.

By bringing the arm closer to the ground and applying strong wind pressure from the tip, it digs into the ground without touching the soil directly.

Only 2 minutes from work.

An unexploded ordnance was found in the scraped soil.

In addition to greatly reducing the risk of workers being caught in an explosion, it is said that the work time that would take tens of minutes if done manually was greatly shortened.

Government officials who have been involved in landmine removal have expressed their admiration for the speed of the work.

Developed by a Japanese startup company

How was this robot born?

Developed by a 7-year-old start-up with just 4 employees.

The president, Kentaro Imai (49), originally worked at a precision parts manufacturer.

He joined the founding members of the company to develop a new business by applying precision parts manufacturing technology to robots.

With Japan's labor force being said to be in short supply, he was initially thinking of developing a robot that could replace humans in the work that was said to be "hard, dirty, and dangerous" for the domestic market.

Dangerous work should be robotized

At that time, I learned about the landmine problem in Cambodia through the person in charge of JICA = Japan International Cooperation Agency.

About 30 years after the end of the civil war, it is said that there are still 4 to 6 million landmines left in the area.

Landmines can be cleared with large machines in large, flat areas, but it is difficult to use such machines in areas with lush vegetation or on slopes such as mountains, making it difficult to remove mines. It is still mostly done by hand.

President Imai

: "We can't do it ourselves. We can't imitate it, or rather, it's a dangerous job. We're crouching down in the minefield, exploring the minefield for a set amount of time, and digging repeatedly. Contaminated by landmines, no matter how hard we try, we can't catch up."

Mr. Imai thought that such dangerous work had to be robotized, so he returned to Japan and decided to proceed with the development of robots.

Mr. Imai's trial and error began, not only to ensure the safety of the workers, but also how to efficiently remove the landmines buried in the vast area.

5 years of development, trial and error

However, robot development did not proceed easily.

At first, the idea was to attach a drill for excavation to the tip of the arm of the robot and gradually dig the ground from near the location where the landmine was located.

However, it is said that the drill could not be carefully dug to prevent the mine from exploding, and at one point the development was almost abandoned.

While trying to continue development somehow, I came up with the idea of ​​using a technology that blows compressed air to dig into the ground.

This technique was originally used by tree doctors who manage and preserve trees designated as natural monuments.

We decided to apply this technology to excavating landmines because it allows us to carefully dig out things buried in the soil without damaging tree roots.

The development period spanned five years while collaborating with other SMEs.

There were times when it was difficult to raise funds, but during that time I was able to manage the subsidies from JICA and the loans from financial institutions and managed to complete the project.

Cambodia and beyond to the world

The completed robot passed a performance evaluation test by a Cambodian government agency in July this year.

This is the first robot to pass a performance evaluation test for digging mines.

In response to this, the government agency responsible for removing landmines also created a team specializing in robots, and the actual introduction began in November.

In the work carried out in November, one unexploded ordnance and one landmine were found in three days.

Currently, only one unit is installed, but we aim to increase it to a maximum of about 200 units in the future.

A robot from a Japanese start-up company that took a step forward in Cambodia.

But Cambodia is not the only country where people are suffering from landmines.

According to reports compiled by NPOs around the world, landmines are buried in 55 countries and 5 regions around the world, including Cambodia.

Recently, new use has been confirmed in Ukraine, which Russia invaded, and Myanmar, where a military coup occurred, and the number of landmines continues to increase.

At Mr. Imai's company, we are making improvements by making robots smaller, lighter, and easier to use, so that they can be used in such areas.

President Imai

: People who are in trouble because of landmines have neither technology nor money. I don't feel the need to get rid of landmines as soon as possible.I think this is not limited to the landmine problem, but the food problem and medical care.In such a situation, I would like you to use our robot to return to your hometown quickly and safely. We would be very happy if our robots could help them to return home."

How can Japanese technology contribute to the elimination of landmines, which are also called "devil's weapons"?

Mr. Imai's challenge continues.


Keiichi Yoshida Joined the Bureau

in 2011 After working in the Social Affairs Department, the Economic Affairs Department

has covered distribution, services, the environment, and labor and employment issues

since August.