By Camelia Nathaniel/Daily News
The Sri Lanka Army Corps of Engineers’ research arm has launched a pilot project to study the possibility of utilizing the indigenous grey mongoose for the detection of explosives.
This project was initially launched on a concept by former Commander of the Engineer brigade, Brigadier (Rtd.) Amith Seneviratne. The project was encouraged by former Army Commander General (Rtd.) A.W.J.C. De Silva. This research project is currently progressing under the supervision of the Director General of the Army’s Research Analysis Projection and Development arm, Major General K.R.P. Rowel, on the directive of Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake.
Speaking to the Daily News, Major Supun Herath, who is involved with the programme, said the Corps of Engineers of the Sri Lanka Army is the only unit that deals with explosives.
“We initially used detectors to trace explosives. Later, dogs were used for the detection of explosives. However, one of the biggest issues with dogs is that it is a very expensive operation as we cannot breed them locally. We have to import them from Europe or America and train them to detect explosives. It costs around Rs. 2 million to import a dog.”
Dogs can sniff out explosives and other parts of the mine or UXO (unexploded ordnance) body. They are therefore commonly used within mine and UXO detection programmes. Examples of dogs used for landmine clearance go back to the Second World War and in more recent times, to the Vietnam War and, of course, Sri Lanka. Dogs were first employed for humanitarian demining in Afghanistan, which today features one of the largest and most successful mine dog detection programmes.
Training a dog to detect explosives is difficult and time-consuming, and can take from three months to several years. A mine detection dog may well be trained far from the country where it is later to be deployed, but a period of acclimatisation and adaptation to the new climate, the soil and the mine or UXO type in the operating area is always required. This period can take from one to six months depending on whether there is a need to train new dog handlers from the target area too.
The price of a high-quality mine dog is high, while other limiting factors are unfavourable climatic conditions (such as excessive heat and humidity, too much wind or wind blowing in the wrong direction), thick vegetation, and dense minefields. The latter will result in a complete contamination of the wider area and thereby confuse the dog. Daily working hours vary from a few hours to six or seven hours per day. Dogs tend to work for shorter periods in hot climates, while they are able to work for longer periods where it is colder. A mine dog can scour a few hundred to a thousand square metres per day (figures vary sharply), depending on local conditions and training. However, like humans, dogs may have bad days where motivation is low.
Mine dog detection is far from a perfect science and the detection rate (efficiency) can vary significantly. Meanwhile, other possibilities are also being explored to ascertain the most cost-effective manner of undertaking mine detection. Currently, it is believed that over 500 dogs are being used worldwide for this purpose.
“We too began to look into the possibility of other cost-effective alternatives. Brigadier Seneviratne had initially done a study in 2016 on whether the mongoose can be used for the detection of explosives. We also found that a local university had undertaken research and found that the mongoose can be used for explosives detection, apart from dogs. Other than that, we had no research to go on,” said Major Herath.
The initial experiments were done with the wet zone reddish mongoose and the dry zone grey mongoose, and of the two, the grey mongoose showed greater sniffing capability than its counterpart.
“While training dogs in explosives’ detection, we use the reward method, where they are rewarded when they respond well to the training. Hence, we began experiments with the mongoose to see how they responded to the same reward system. We used both species of mongoose for this initial experiment and our experiments established that the dry zone grey mongoose showed greater ability to sniff out explosives. We also did research on the direction of the sniffing capabilities of the grey mongoose. As with dogs, they only have downward sniffing capability, which means that they can more accurately sniff areas below their feet rather than scents at a fair distance or above their head. Dogs rarely have upward sniffing capability. However, with the grey mongoose, they have a wider sniffing range.
“In 2017, we recruited a specialist who was knowledgeable about the mongoose and its behaviour, food habits, and capabilities. Then we undertook the research and were amazed at the mongoose’s sniffing capability and response to reward-based training,” he said, adding that as a secondary project, the Army was looking at breeding possibilities under a controlled system.
“Currently, we have around nine mongooses in our research programme, and, of them, one has been trained to a very satisfactory level. We have so utilised funds allocated by the Army for research purposes. Army Commander Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake has given his approval for this project and we intend to undertake further research in terms of training the grey mongoose in explosives’ detection, and also undertake research on the possibility of breeding the mongoose locally.”
Meanwhile, visiting scholar at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and 2008-09 Radcliffe Institute Fellow Thrishantha Nanayakkara and a group from Moratuwa University have done an explosives’ detection study using the mongoose. They picked an indigenous mongoose for its temperament, size (roughly 2.5 kilogrammes, light enough to step on a mine without detonating it), and sense of smell (ability to detect explosives three metres away).
Nanayakkara equipped a robot (roughly a metre tall and half-a-metre wide) with a harness to keep the mongoose under control and a video camera to record its findings. Although the mongoose walks a few feet ahead, the robot with its eight metal legs sets the pace. During the test run, the pair went back and forth across a 10-by-10-metre plot, stopping whenever the mongoose detected a mine, which it indicated by sitting up (as it was trained to do). In a morning’s work, the mongoose found every mine, proving its effectiveness in explosives’ detection.
The success of the initial experiments bring great hope that the indigenous grey mongoose could prove to be a cheaper alternative in explosives’ and mine detection than the far more expensive method of using imported dogs.