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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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:46PM (#31159908)
    It's nice to see they scare away fish and mammals first before detonating bombs, but how do they determine that the unexploded ordnance they blow up are not mustard gas shells [wikipedia.org] dumped there after WW2?
  • by Maximum Prophet (716608) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:50PM (#31159978)
    5Kg of modern explosive will explode the mine even if the mine's explosives are inert. If there's no secondary explosion, the contents will be dissipated enough to make them harmless.
  • by Misanthrope (49269) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:53PM (#31160018)

    Coral doesn't grow in the Baltic sea, though this probably isn't a great idea for some of the stationary shellfish in nearby costal waters.

  • by gurudyne (126096) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:54PM (#31160036)

    And just what kind of reefs grow in brackish waters that freeze over in the winter?

    Certainly, there aren't any corals in the region, except for hotels.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @04:56PM (#31160076)

    The shock wave is not a problem, this [wikipedia.org] is a problem.

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:02PM (#31160166)

    Plants? WTF?! This is the bottom of the Baltic Sea, south of Finland, not a shallow coral reef in the Caribbean. There's no plants down there.

    There's some very beautiful parts of the ocean, places where scuba divers and snorklers like to visit to see the pretty fish, coral, and underwater plants. The Baltic Sea is not one of these places.

  • by gurudyne (126096) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:09PM (#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 Waffle Iron (339739) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:14PM (#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 @05:15PM (#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 data2 (1382587) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:15PM (#31160348)

    Don't be so quick to judge. There are such things as cold water and deep water corals. These even live in some parts of Norway.
    The reason for them not living in the Baltic is that the water does not have enough salt. But in the parts close to the North Sea - the Skagerrak - several types have been found.

  • Re:DISCRIMINATION! (Score:5, Informative)

    by sznupi (719324) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:36PM (#31160578) Homepage

    Nah, it's just the usual The Man keeping down...The Man.

    Look at the map of current and planned gas pipelines: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Major_russian_gas_pipelines_to_europe.png [wikipedia.org]

    Russia just goes into some trouble of building that pipeline so that their former colonies will be reminded of few things, will drop some weird ideas they got in the last two decades.

  • Re:Origin of Mines? (Score:3, Informative)

    by ZosX (517789) <zosxavius@gma[ ]com ['il.' in gap]> on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:36PM (#31160586) Homepage

    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.

  • by vlm (69642) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @05:52PM (#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.

  • by rahst12 (1395987) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:13PM (#31161068)
    "Approximately 100,000 km2 (38,610 sq mi) of the Baltic's seafloor (a quarter of its total area) is a variable dead zone." - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baltic_Sea [wikipedia.org] .. Right from wikipedia, guess there is less to worry about than one would think
  • by Shinobi (19308) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:16PM (#31161120)

    Those mines are still capable of detonating. As explosives age, they tend to become very unstable.

    Swedish, german, danish and finnish underwater demolitions crews have been working on clearing areas together, and so far, in the last 6 years, 3 german divers have died(one diver got a cramp in his legs, attempted to straighten the leg and hit the seabed(Yes, the seabed, not the mine) with his flipper with a bit of force... the vibrations were enough to set off the mine 2m away ), 1 swedish and 1 finnish diver badly wounded(previously not found mine detonating in a sympathetic reaction as another mine was set off in a controlled blast). And those are just the casualties I know of.

  • by toastar (573882) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:30PM (#31161316)

    I disagree, Peta protests are the best, There all about hot semi-naked chicks spouting on about something you could careless about.

  • Re:Origin of Mines? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:33PM (#31161360)

    The mines were intended to damage both subs and surface ships. Most mines were tethered to a weight that sat on the bottom and held them just below the surface. That way, even good lookouts in perfect weather wouldn't see them. So the crew of a large, not very maneuverable freighter, say, or a passenger ship might never know it was in the middle of a minefield until after the mine exploded.

    Also note, during WW II, diesel powered submarines actually spent most of their time underway on the surface. The snorkel wasn't deployed until after the beginning of WW II and only the newer subs had them. They were still restrained to "snorkel depth" which might have been only slightly deeper than a deep draft vessel of that time, if that.

    Finally, many of those mines are left over from the first (yes, first!) world war. The French are still clearing WW I battlefields that saw very little action in WW II of old, unexploded artillery shells left over from WW I.

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

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:37PM (#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.

  • by cptdondo (59460) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:46PM (#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 Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:47PM (#31161526)

    That's just misinformation. Plants don't always grow back. [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:humans (Score:2, Informative)

    by Daimanta (1140543) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @06:52PM (#31161588) Journal

    Well, in WWII it was not uncommon to use German POWs as an expendable force to remove mines from heavily mined areas. The Germans are pretty much the only nation in the world who had the right system to map minefields and that came in handy. And yes, a lot of Germans lost their lives during the process.

  • Re:Origin of Mines? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @07:19PM (#31161864)

    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 anchor chains break, they can then either float to the surface or sometime will sink over time from the weight of marine growth on them.

    There is some interesting stats on just how many mines from ww1 and ww2 just up and floated away and how many ship disappearances in both post war periods might have been caused by that.

  • by Grishnakh (216268) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:45PM (#31162850)

    Plants require photosynthesis to get energy. That means they need light. Therefore, plants don't exist at deep depths. Most scuba divers will tell you that unless you're interested in diving for shipwrecks, there's really nothing worth looking at below about 40 feet (unless you're looking for unknown species, in which case you won't be scuba diving, you'll be in a deep-diving submersible and out in the open ocean diving to thousands of feet, not in the relatively shallow Baltic Sea).

    But you definitely have a point with the waste and chemical weapons. Maybe they should clean some of that stuff up first, at least along the area where they're planning to put this pipeline.

  • by fm6 (162816) on Tuesday February 16, 2010 @08:56PM (#31162962) Homepage Journal

    As explosives age, they become less stable, and thus more likely to explode. Especially if they're not properly stored. Unexploded ordinance from WW II is still a big problem in many places.

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,584091,00.html [spiegel.de]
    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2005-05/04/content_439409.htm [chinadaily.com.cn]

    The French still have problems with unexploded ordinance from World War I, which was mostly fought on their territory.

  • by MartinSchou (1360093) on Wednesday February 17, 2010 @03:29AM (#31166104)

    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 bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives. -- Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project

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