Unexploded bombs from Vietnam War targeted by AI system

Weeding out the remaining unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War could be made easier with an AI system that predicts where they may be located based on satellite data.


Despite the war ending in 1975, it is estimated that there are still at least 350,000 tons of live bombs and mines remaining in Vietnam alone, with Cambodia also heavily affected and Laos suffering more than either country.

At the current rate, it will take 300 years to clear all the explosives from the landscape. In the meantime, accidental casualties and severe injuries continue to mount.

Nearly 40,000 Vietnamese have been killed since the end of the war - and a further 67,000 maimed - by land mines, cluster bombs and other ordnance.

Now, a new system being developed by Ohio State University researchers could improve the detection of bomb craters by more than 160 per cent over standard methods.

The model, combined with declassified US military records, suggests that 44 to 50 per cent of the bombs in the area studied may remain unexploded.

Currently, attempts to find and safely remove unexploded bombs and landmines has not been as effective as needed in Cambodia, according to researcher Erin Lin.

She cites a recent UN-commissioned report that has criticised the Cambodian national clearance agency for presenting a picture of rapid progress by focusing on areas at minimal or no risk of having unexploded mines. The report urges a shift in focus to more high-danger areas.

“There is a disconnect between services that are desperately needed and where they are applied, partly because we can’t accurately target where we need demining the most. That’s where our new method may help,” Lin said.

The researchers started with a commercial satellite image of a 100km2 area near the town of Kampong Trabaek in Cambodia. The area was the target of carpet bombing by the US Air Force from May 1970 to August 1973.

The researchers used machine learning techniques to analyse the satellite images for evidence of bomb craters.

It is already known how many bombs were dropped in the area and the general location of where they fell; the craters help the researchers to know how many bombs actually exploded and where.

They can then determine how many unexploded bombs could be left and the specific areas where they might be found.


Initially, algorithms were developed to detect meteor craters on the Moon and planets; while these helped to find many potential craters, it wasn’t good enough. Bombs do create craters similar to (although smaller than) those made by meteors, she said.

“Over the decades there’s going to be grass and shrubs growing over them, there’s going to be erosion, and all that is going to change the shape and appearance of the craters,” Lin explained.

The team set about determining how bomb and meteor craters differ from those created by natural forces. The computer algorithms developed by the researchers consider the novel features of bomb craters, including their shapes, colours, textures and sizes.

After the machine ‘learned’ how to detect true bomb craters, it was able to instantly identify 177 sites where bombs had fallen.

Using just the initial crater detection process, the researcher’s model identified 89 per cent of the true craters (157 of 177), but also identified 1,142 false positives - crater-like features not caused by bombs.

By applying the more specified machine-learning technique to the data, 96 per cent of the false positives were eliminated, while losing only five of the real bomb craters. The overall accuracy rate was around 86 per cent, correctly identifying 152 of 177 bomb craters.

This proposed method increases true bomb detection by more than 160 per cent, Lin said.

The researchers also had access to declassified military data, indicating that 3,205 general-purpose bombs - known as carpet bombs - were dropped in the area analysed for this study.

This information, combined with demining reports and the results of the study, suggests that anywhere from 1,405 to 1,618 unexploded carpet bombs are still unaccounted for in the area. This is around 44-50 per cent of the bombs dropped there, Lin said.

Much of the land covered in this study is agricultural, meaning that local farmers are at risk of encountering an unexploded bomb, she said. The danger is very real, not merely hypothetical.

In the six decades following the US bombing of Cambodia, more than 64,000 people have been killed or injured there by unexploded bombs. Today, the injury count averages one person every week.

“The process of demining is expensive and time-intensive, but our model can help identify the most vulnerable areas that should be demined first,” Lin said.

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