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Tunnel Vision: Army Looks to Safeguard Soldiers From Underground Threats Through Mining Technology

by Rebecca Ruiz

In Afghanistan, the earth holds secrets. Some, like improvised explosive devices and mines, are deadly and put soldiers on edge around the clock.

The karez, an ancient irrigation system, however, falls somewhere between perilous and harmless. These underground tunnels snake for miles across the country, sending water from aquifers to villages and into fields used for farming.

The U.S. military has acknowledged the importance of maintaining karez, a central part of Afghan life for three thousand years, to win hearts and minds.

Yet soldiers tasked with assessing the karezes have found that insurgents also use the tunnels to store or smuggle weapons and IEDs. Such discoveries have forced the Army to develop a new strategy and set of tools for safely investigating the tunnels, which draw heavily on technologies like subterranean robots and airborne imaging developed by the mining industry.

“The immediate priority is to find a way to help soldiers on the ground get in and look at and map which holes they’ve been into when,” says Col. Peter Newell, director of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF).

Threat Assessment

Checking out a karez is no easy task. A small, square opening in the dirt leads to tunnels that vary in shape and size. In some cases, the narrow entry might be followed by a few tight corners that ultimately leads to a 20-foot cave. Water can run high against the tunnel walls and there is often a mess of debris, silt and collapsed earth.

(View of the modified pipe inspection robot in a karez from the surface. The capabilities and limitations of this specific robot are still being investigated. Courtesy U.S. Army REF)

Newell tells Txchnologist he learned of the challenges in a conversation with a division headquarters in Afghanistan this past summer. He quickly recruited Dr. Michael Mattice, a researcher with expertise in tunnel detection, to oversee the REF exploration team in Afghanistan that would assess the problem and potential solutions.

Typically, a soldier inspecting a karez might lower a fiber-optic cable and camera or a robot and hope to collect clear images of the tunnels. Success can be hard to come by, though, as the water shorts out camera and robot electronics or connectivity is lost once the devices are underground. In some cases, a soldier might rappel into the tight space, but the threat of a cave-in is a major concern.

Though the Army has its own expertise on subterranean threats, which existed in Vietnam and Iraq, the technologies it has deployed thus far can’t quite match the unique conditions of the karez. That’s why REF has turned to solutions developed specifically for underground exploration.

“Mining and pipeline inspection industries offer tethered waterproof robots with quality video and significant lighting,” Mattice said in an email. “These robots have proven to be quite capable of maneuvering through the wet, silty soil in the bottom of some of the karez.”

Unlike the cameras and robots currently used by soldiers, these advanced devices are designed to manage mud splatter, fine silt and loose or eroded soil that might otherwise decrease maneuverability or degrade image quality. Mattice is currently sending different robot models into karez in Afghanistan to determine if additional modifications or capabilities are necessary.

(View of the modified pipe inspection robot in a karez from the surface. The capabilities and limitations of this specific robot are still being investigated. Courtesy U.S. Army REF)

Mapping a Solution

Getting the right robots underground is just the beginning. REF has plans to collect images and information and build a database that soldiers can easily consult each time they see a karez that might pose a threat.

To achieve this, REF may use subsurface imaging techniques pioneered by the mining industry like airborne surveys that employ a signaling method called time domain magnetics, which creates currents in order to detect underground features like aquifers; radiometry; and LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging). In combination, these technologies can produce detailed images of the tunnels that lie beneath the surface.

Dr. Jason McKenna, who works on geospatial research and engineering for the Army, is leading the REF’s efforts to develop a handheld application that will tell soldiers when a karez was last checked and what was found. Tunnels equipped with sensors will feed information back to the central database – which could be cloud-based – to measure activity since the last inspection.

“Really, there’s legitimate uses for these karez,” McKenna says. New mapping and database tools will “help REF separate wheat from the chaff.”

McKenna and his team are readying an initial version of the app for beta testing. REF began its research in Afghanistan in September and hopes to get a comprehensive solution to soldiers within a standard six-month timeline it sets for solving problems in the combat zone.

The end product will likely be useful to the Department of Homeland Security and its efforts to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, where smuggling tunnels are common, as well as abroad in countries where similar tunnels could play a role in humanitarian or other missions.

Whatever combination of technologies is eventually used in Afghanistan, it may help boost local opinion of U.S. forces.

(Still image captured from Borehole camera video of the inside of a Karez tunnel system. Courtesy U.S. Army REF.)

In addition to inspecting the karez for potential danger, Newell envisions the ability to also collect water quality data – information that’s very valuable for farmers and conservationists.

“There’s no reason you can’t perform multiple tasks with the same system,” he says. “It’s one of the very easy benefits of what we’re doing.”

Top Image: Two team members are setting up a modified pipe inspection robot for a karez inspection test in Afghanistan on Sept. 21, 2012. Courtesy U.S. Army REF.

Rebecca Ruiz covers military, veteran and home front issues. She was formerly a reporter for NBC News and a staff writer at Forbes. Follow her on Twitter at @rebecca_ruiz.

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