The global statistics on land mines and their effects make sobering reading. According to the United Nations, up to 110 million mines have been laid across more than 70 countries since the 1960s and that between 15,000 and 20,000 people die each year because of them.
Many of the victims are civilians - children, women and the elderly - not soldiers. Thousands more are maimed. Moreover, mines are cheap. The UN estimates that some cost as little as $3 to make and lay in the ground. Yet, removing them can cost more than 50 times that amount. And the removal is not without human cost either. The UN says that one mine clearance specialist is killed, and two injured, for every 5,000 mines cleared.
One of the worst affected countries is Afghanistan, with an estimated 10 million land mines contaminating more than 200 square miles of land. It is something that Massoud Hassani, who grew up in the northern part of Kabul, knows that all too well. "We lived out by the airport, and there's a big desert out there where all different militaries trained," Hassani tells me. "It was a real war zone. They left a lot of explosives, including land mines."
"But, it was our playground," Hassani continues. "When we were kids, we used to make these wind-powered toys, and play with them on this desert full of explosives, and they'd get stuck out there."
Hassani's family left Afghanistan in 1993, moving around different countries before eventually settling in The Netherlands. Hassani tried studying different subjects, but nothing grabbed him. And then, one day, a colleague at a security company noticed him drawing. "I was doing a job just sitting all day long in a building, and I was sketching because I was really bored. And my colleague suggested that I do something creative."
He eventually ended up at the Design Academy in Eindhoven, where his experience of Afghanistan’s mine fields would serve as inspiration for a unique device. Whilst looking for ideas for his final project, one of his professors suggested he look to his Afghan roots for inspiration. Hassani says he thought back to that desert north of Kabul filled with land mines, and those small, wind-powered toys that used to skip across it. "My teachers told me to make a link between them," Hassani says. And that is how the Mine Kafon was born.
Hassani has designed and built, by hand, a wind-powered ball that is heavy enough to trip mines as it rolls across the ground. Each $50 device looks like an artwork inspired by a starburst. In the middle of the Kafon is a 17kg (37lb) iron casing surrounded by dozens of radiating bamboo legs that each have a round plastic "foot" at their tip. Inside the ball is a GPS unit to map where it has been – and in theory cleared of mines. Around the iron ball is a suspension mechanism, which allows the entire Kafon to roll over bumps, holes and so forth. In all, it weighs a little more than 80kg (175lb). The idea is that it is light enough to be pushed by the wind, but heavy enough to trip mines. Hassani thinks that humanitarian organizations could take Kafons with them into areas suspected of being mined, and then let the wind do the dangerous work.
"Nowadays people search for mines by hand, and it takes a lot of time," Hassani says. "People walk along, sticking things into the ground. Many are not trained to do it, and there are a lot of accidents." He believes that the mine Kafon could be a safer, and cheaper, alternative. He has spent the last year and a half improving his invention, has also teamed up with the Dutch military and the country's Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit to test it.