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Robotics Power The Military

Robots To Clear the Baltic Seafloor of WW-II Mines 286

Posted by kdawson
from the booming-business dept.
An anonymous reader writes "A Russian company is building a massive natural gas pipeline that will run across the Baltic Sea floor. But first, they must clear some of the 150,000 unexploded bombs sitting at the bottom of the sea, left there by the Russian and German armies in the 1940s. About 70 of these mines, each filled with 300 kg of explosive charge, sit in the pipeline's path, mostly in its northern section just south of Finland. And so the company contracted to remove the mines is bringing in robots to do the dirty work. Here's how it will work: A research ship deploys the robot to the seabed, where it identifies the exact location of the explosive. After sounding a warning to surrounding ship traffic, scaring fish away using a small explosive, and then emitting a 'seal screamer' of high intensity noises designed to make the area around the blast quite uncomfortable for marine mammals, Bactec's engineers erupt a 5 kg blast, forcing the mine to detonate. This process ensures the safety of humans plus any animals living in the surrounding environment. The operation concludes with the robot being redeployed to clear up the scrap of the now-destroyed bomb."
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Robots To Clear the Baltic Seafloor of WW-II Mines

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  • by Thud457 (234763) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @03:35PM (#31159768) Homepage Journal
    once again, The Man keeping the metalman down by only giving him the shitty jobs!!!
  • humans (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @03:36PM (#31159782)

    One day robots will use humans to dispose of mines...won't be so funny then...

    • Re:humans (Score:5, Funny)

      by megamerican (1073936) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @03:50PM (#31159980)

      I, for one welcome our new aquatic suicide bombing robot overlords.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Let me fix that for you;
      In Soviet Russia robots use humans to dispose mines...
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:23PM (#31160448)

      For a minute I read your post as this:

      One day robots will use humans to dispose of mimes...won't be so funny then...

      and I was going to vehemently disagree.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by plover (150551) *

        For a minute I read your post as this:

        One day robots will use humans to dispose of mimes...won't be so funny then...

        and I was going to vehemently disagree.


        ROBOT 01101001: Do you know what is funny about mimes?

        ROBOT 10000110: No. What is funny about mimes?

        ROBOT 01101001: Their interaction with my gustatory sensory circuits.

        ROBOT 10000110: Ha. Ha. Ha.

  • Good news! (Score:2, Funny)

    by MahJongKong (883108)

    I hope that around 2050 we'll take care of Afghanistan, once Rwanda is done around 2035.

  • Maybe the rumors that robots have learned to submit stories to slashdot are true!!
  • What makes them think the mines will explode? I mean its not like these things were engineered to last 60 years.

  • One would think that after sitting at the bottom of the salty ocean for 60+ years it's shell would have rusted through and the explosives saturated with water. if those mines are really still good then they are remarkably well engineered
    • Maybe, but why take the chance? If the mines haven't leaked, the explosives inside may be very unstable.
      • by Sponge Bath (413667) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:27PM (#31160488)

        ...why take the chance?

        Or more explicitly, would *you* personally (the original poster) take the chance?
        It is easier to wave away risk when someone else is taking it.

        I was present when a plumber was fixing a small, on demand water heater wired directly to the mains so you could not unplug it. (probably a building code violation) I switched off power to the bathroom at the breaker box and told him it was off. The plumber asked: "Are you sure it's off?", I said yes, he said "Then you wont have a problem touching those terminals yourself."

        At that point I grabbed my meter and verified it was off and then shorted the terminals with a screw driver to be doubly sure.

    • We still discover Shipwrecks and sunken cruisers from earlier eras in the same intact position as they sunk - I have no reason to doubt a mine could last that long. You need Oxygen to rust, and while there is obviously a lot of it inside an H20 ocean, it doesn't have the C02 that usually helps pump out fast oxidizing.

      Your car sitting outside with the wind and the rain and polution will rust much faster than a ship at the bottom of the ocean.

    • by gurudyne (126096) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:09PM (#31160270)

      Probably not saturated. You may be thinking of gunpowder. People are still getting killed with WW I buried mines and shells.

      Quoting Wikipedia: "TNT neither absorbs nor dissolves in water, which allows it to be used effectively in wet environments."

      Let's say that only one out of twenty still work. Do you feel lucky? Exciting times.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:09PM (#31160272) Journal
      Depends on the design and the filling. A thin steel shell would, indeed, probably have rusted, unless that particular patch of ocean is especially oxygen poor. With the right naval paint and a bit of luck, though, survival would certainly be possible.

      Also, it is quite possible that the explosive agent in a fair few of these mines is Amatol. Because that stuff was hygroscopic, it was often given some sort of waterproof coating even if it was intended for land use, just so that it wouldn't go dud in storage. A basic coating of Bitumen could stand against seawater for quite a while, preserving the lump of possibly touchy explosive material even if the mine casing has been breached. Some of the period contact detonators, constructed largely of glass and lead, might also surive surprisingly well...
    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:14PM (#31160334)

      One would think that after sitting at the bottom of the salty ocean for 60+ years it's shell would have rusted through and the explosives saturated with water.

      IIRC, bombs and mines are often filled with a molten explosive such as TNT, which is then allowed to cool into a solid mass. It's not a given that simply exposing such a monolithic explosive to water would render it harmless.

    • by Xest (935314) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:15PM (#31160346)

      They certainly are.

      Here in the UK we often have a problem of unexploded ordinance and I would imagine countries like France, Germany et al. do also. Unexploded bombs in land or mines at sea dating back to World War II are usually found a few times a year here in the UK and are generally detonated because they are not safe to simply move, although some are safe enough to just move.

    • by xaxa (988988) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:40PM (#31160634)

      The Vasa [wikipedia.org] warship was preserved in the brackish waters a little way from Stockholm for over three hundred years. How long something lasts at the bottom of the sea depends on the composition of the water (oxygen, salt, etc) and other factors.

      (If you visit Stockholm make sure you see the ship, it's amazing.)

    • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:41PM (#31160642) Journal

      I'm no munitions expert, but if I were to design a mine that was going to go into saltwater I might also select a material that is somewhat resistant to saltwater. PVC, polystyrene, bakelite, teflon, and polyurethane come to mind, and all were around before WWII. Heck, even stainless steel was around, albeit probably too expensive for the Russian military at the time. I wouldn't necessarily expect it to last 60 years, but if I designed it to be even minimally saltwater-resistant it's not outside the realm of possibility that one might survive that long. The odds are against it, but it's not impossible.

      So you go with the odds, and relative levels of damage involved. This is prepwork for a very expensive natural gas pipeline, and I doubt it really accounts for a significant portion of the overall expense.

      If no bombs are viable, then the project has spent some money unnecessarily and set off a series of 5kg (~11-pound) explosives and not done any real harm to the surrounding environment except for a bunch of little areas that are about to get a LNG pipeline plumbed through anyway.

      If just one of those bombs is live and goes off when natural gas is flowing through the LNG pipeline they want to build, that could be very devastating over a very large area.

    • by cptdondo (59460) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:46PM (#31161518) Journal

      Why take the risk? One lucky mine could ruin your whole day.

      I lived in Charleston, SC for a while. It was not too unusual to dig up unexplosed ordinance from the Civil war; some of it was still dangerous.

      Unless you want to die, treat all unexploded ordinance as dangerous; the older, the more dangerous.

  • by Zebai (979227) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @03:51PM (#31160000)

    I can't believe they have opposition from ENVIRONMENTALISTS! Of all people, they should be the first to encourage the removal of mines. Frankly I would like to see all 150,000 removed, we have enough mines in our world we don't need them in the ocean as well.

    Any pollution from the remains of these mines would only be temporary, the sea claims all things in the end and it will eventually filter out/destroy toxins on its own once its in flow is stopped. If its already heavily polluted they should focus their efforts on whatever is causing it before this.

    • by zero_out (1705074) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:01PM (#31160150)

      Never underestimate the idiocy of a subset of the human population. There are plenty of sane, rational environmentalists out there, but then there's PETA. An animatronic groundhog? Protesting the Westminster dog show? Those animals have better lives than I do, and mine is pretty good.

      There will always be someone, somewhere, ready to protest anything.

    • by Jeng (926980)

      What don't environmentalists oppose?

      I think the only thing they can all agree on is More Funding!!

      There are the environmentalists that oppose everything and give no answers as to what we should do, those ones suck.

      Then there are the environmentalists that look at a problem and see a solution, these aren't environmentalists, they're engineers.

    • by Grishnakh (216268)

      To be fair, the process could be a lot cleaner if they simply raised the mines off the seafloor and transported them somewhere safe for detonation, or even better, disassembly and recycling.

      Since this would obviously be a very dangerous job for any workers involved, let's get the environmentalists complaining about this to volunteer to do the job.

      • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:54PM (#31160836) Journal

        Not only dangerous, but probably largely ineffective at actually preserving any environment.

        These are mines. If they still have explosives, then they might still have devices designed to make those explosives go boom when the mine is moved. If 1/4 of the mines are still active, you'll have 1/4 the large explosions.

        But you'll have larger, more expensive equipment that costs more and has to be abandoned due to severe damage the first time it encounters a mine that went off (as opposed to a small robot who was built to be blown up). Then you'll have bombs that make it all the way up to a ship THEN go off, leaving all the Diesel fuel and other chemicals in the water when the ship sinks

        Blowing them up in place is probably the most environmentally friendly way of disposing of the bombs, short of not building them in the first place of course. But I lack a time machine AND any way to change human nature. ;)

    • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:52PM (#31160802)

      Any pollution from the remains of these mines would only be temporary, the sea claims all things in the end and it will eventually filter out/destroy toxins on its own once its in flow is stopped.

      Conservation of mass is still the rule of the land. Pollution doesn't "disappear" it just dilutes. That being said, from my memory of a week of hands on US army explosives training in the early 90s as an ammo specialist 55B:

      1) All unexploded military grade explosives are somewhat toxic. In the movies, or during wartime, people mush C-4 with their bare hands, but its quite poisonous so we wore gloves in training. We were told you'll throw up in the short term, and get cancer in the long term. Best case is probably ANFO, the AN is harmless, but the FO part is literally pouring raw diesel fuel into the water, not all that nice of a thing to do. Just touching nitro dynamite gives an amazing headache, the RDX stuff is way better but still not exactly baby formula. TNT is oily gritty semisolid stuff that partially liquifies when its warm, probably not an issue in the baltic sea...

      There are explosives that are non toxic like gunpowder that are not used as a military explosive but only as a propellant in naval guns (modern ones use nitro based smokeless powders). There are exotic mining explosives vaguely involving charcoal and liquid oxygen, which are not used by the military.

      2) Generally speaking, the fumes/smoke/whatever of an explosive are WAY less toxic than the explosive itself. Given the choice of breathing the smoke from 1 lb of TNT, or eating 1 lb of TNT, the smoke is WAY more healthy. The smoke from C-4 is nasty and will kill you, but eating or touching unexploded C-4 will kill you WAY faster. The environment is way better off with the stuff exploded than unexploded.

      3) Pest control was not an issue in the bunkers, as far as I know, aside from termites in the crates. Unexploded ammo is not good eats.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by MartinSchou (1360093)

        Just touching nitro dynamite gives an amazing headache

        That's commonly referred to as bang-head I believe. It's a side effect of the nitroglycerine [wikipedia.org].

        Pest control was not an issue in the bunkers, as far as I know, aside from termites in the crates.

        Not so much for modern explosives, but in the old days of gun powder, fire ants were a real danger ;)

  • The interesting part is that the de-mining process starts with the assumption that all of these mines will still detonate. Wonder what kind of explosive is that reliable.

    Hopefully, the actual fusing and ship detecting 'sensors' on the mine (not sure what else to call the big mechanical and magnetic switches mines of this vintage use) no longer work.

    • Those commies should have just made their mines biodegradable!
    • by compro01 (777531)

      Wonder what kind of explosive is that reliable.

      They're German mines. Of course they'll still work! ;)

      But in seriousness, if they don't detonate after having 5 kilos of high explosive blow up on top of them, they're probably not going to detonate ever, and thus aren't a problem.

    • by Chris Burke (6130)

      The interesting part is that the de-mining process starts with the assumption that all of these mines will still detonate.

      Explosives Disposal 101: Always assume an explosive device is functional, armed, and active.

      And if that assumption is wrong, the mine will still be destroyed, so no biggie.

  • Of course I expect it is not actually robots but rather remote controlled vehicles.

    While the article does not state it the graphics clearly shows ROV. Remote Operated Vehicle.

    No robots here. Please move on.

    1. Remote vehicle finds mine(s)
    2. Remote vehicle initiates measures to sacre off most sea creatures
    3. Modest explosive charge is used to detonate mine
    4. Local fisherman patrol the area, scooping up tons of stunned fish
    5. Local fish markets thrive (for about a week)!
  • If only it was so profitable to remove landmines and stop them from performing their gruesome task.
    • by Hadlock (143607)

      It's *very* profitable... for non profits. (Non Profits have to pay people salaries too... from their 12-14% "administrative overhead")...They just haven't been pushing their marketing as hard as they could lately.

  • by hey (83763)

    Won't be so nice for the environment when the new gas line springs a leak.

  • Origin of Mines? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Knara (9377) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:13PM (#31160328)
    Are these mines that were intended to damage surface ships that sunk after time, or were they intended to get subs? Skimmed the article but didn't see that detail. Seems they're a bit too deep to be intended for surface ships, yeah?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ZosX (517789)

      Subs for sure. If they were still on the surface, they would have been cleared by now. Submarine mines were typically anchored deep in the water.

      • Re:Origin of Mines? (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:37PM (#31161416)

        No, they were dumped there after the war, and not just normal bombs but chemical ones as well. Common practice at the time.

        Germany had large stockpiles of these (including neurotoxic ones), but they feared if they used them the allies would use them too. Hitler was temporarily blinded in WWI by chemical warfare, so that might have played a role.

        Nobody wanted to look after or defuse these, so they just dumped them in the Baltic sea.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Could be all sorts of things

        There are areas of the channel that you don't want to play with as they were designated zones for USAF and RAF a/c to dump their unused bombs into - That action is in fact one of the theories around Glenn Millers dissappearance since that was near just such an area.

        Also vast amounts of ordiance of all sorts was just dumped post 1945

        But mines are generally anchored at a depth for either subs (various levels to create a barrier) or near the surface to take out ships. Once the ancho

  • I was undecided on whether to go into robotics or demolitions. Now I don't have to choose!
  • Yes, she had a variety show back then. One of the skits involved a WWII suicide mission, held in a tent, complete with a map they can point to from time to time. So the commander is brought in, they all stand at attention yadda yadda and when he starts the briefing he is half mumbling his words but the only words you could ever understand where the words suicide, death, and die. WHen he called in Cher to demonstrate gas masks (of all things) Cher also mumbles which even gets worse when she puts the gas mask

  • Interesting how we're still expending money and effort to clean up previous wars. Due to the global nature of this particular war, really makes me wonder who should be footing the bill for cleanup like this, especially in "international" waterways.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Duradin (1261418)

      Obviously the Germans should be forced to pay war reparations...

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Duradin (1261418)
        Hey now, we could at least let them sign the treaty at some place fancy, like Versailles.
  • by synaptik (125) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:50PM (#31160768) Homepage
    A warning to anyone tempted to google for the article's intriguing term "seal screamer": the google search result pointing to Urban Dictionary's entry for "screamin' seal [urbandictionary.com]"-- while interesting in its own right, and marginally related-- is likely not the same phenomenon.

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