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Madison company's explosive detection technology gains international interest

Landmines, shells and rockets south of Kabul in 2014. The U.N. says unexploded ordnance left mostly by NATO and Afghan forces and the Taliban continue to kill and maim children.
Shah Marai
AFP/Getty Images
Landmines and other explosives remain a threat to civilians in many countries around the world.

Countries around the world are facing issues with landmine removal and explosive detection. According to landminefree.org, there could be as many as 110 million landmines in the ground and more that have yet to be planted or destroyed. But a technology startup in Madison hopes to change that.

Clandestine Materials Detection is an offshoot of UW-Madison. Co-founder and CEO Dennis Hall says the company plans to use drones that detect the gamma rays produced by the neutrons in explosives.

"The neutron generator sends neutrons about a meter into the ground and that will detect the actual explosive and what type of explosive it is," he says. "Then in a millisecond, it sends out to the sensors the gamma rays, that it is, in fact, an explosive. That’s relayed to the Humvee or whatever vehicle is receiving it. Then it's tagged, and the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) people know exactly what kind of explosive it is, and so they know how to react to it."

Hall formed the company with UW-Madison professors Gerald Kulcinski and John Santarius. The company calls its detection method the Red Rover System. Hall says it’s meant to keep people safe and expedite the search process as an alternative to conventional detection methods because "they detect the metal casings on an explosive." He adds that some landmines are made of plastic.

"Our technology actually detects the explosive inside of the landmine, so doesn't care what kind of casing it is."

Hall says Washington D.C. officials and members of the Secret Service, Navy, Marine Corps and more have called CMD’s technology a game changer.

"There is now a very keen interest in it because we can put it in front of a convoy. If POTUS is going on a parade route we can scan that parade route in minutes, as opposed to what the bomb squad told me takes them hours to walk the route of the caravan."

On a line of sight, the Red Rover drones can work from about 1,000 yards away. Hall says he’s also spoken to interested officials from Iraq, Somalia and Ukraine.

"I've been told that there are 50 to 60,000 rounds a day of unexploded ordnance in Ukraine. The guys at the EOD in November said, that's a conservative number, and well over a third of the Ukraine territory is covered in landmines and unexploded ordnance."

In 2018, before the most recent Russian invasion, over 40% of civilian deaths in eastern Ukraine were caused by landmines and explosives, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Hall says hidden explosives threaten and hinder the daily lives of civilians.

"The farmers trying to go out and plow their wheat fields are exposed to all of this, not only the landmines, but the unexploded ordnance. They've told me that it would take three or four decades to get this accomplished. It's something that we can speed up the process quite readily by using several drone systems."

CMD is operating on a shoestring budget, Hall says, with the company raising $1.3 million in 2022. He says staff are working diligently on the project. The startup hopes to raise $3-5 million in its second round of funding and have a prototype ready this spring or summer.

Eddie is a WUWM news reporter.