Dutch inventor’s war-torn childhood inspires ‘dandelion’ demining device


Childhood toys lost in a war-torn field have inspired an odd-looking invention that its young Dutch inventor hopes can help save thousands of lives and limbs in his native Afghanistan.

Decades of war, notably the 1979-89 Soviet invasion, have left the rugged Afghan countryside littered with land mines that continue to exact a merciless toll, mainly on children.

Now, in a small workshop in the industrial heart of the southern city of Eindhoven, 29-year-old Massoud Hassani screws in the last leg of an ingenious, wind-driven gadget he built to clear antipersonnel mines. He calls the device, the size of a golf buggy, a “mine kafon.”

“The idea comes from our childhood toys which we once played with as kids on the outskirts of Kabul,” Hassani said as he rolled out the device for a demonstration.

Short for “kafondan,” which in Hassani’s native language of Dari means “something that explodes,” the kafon consists of 150 bamboo legs screwed into a central metal ball.

At the other end of each leg, a round, white plastic disk the size of a small frisbee is attached via a black rubber car part for drive shafts, called a CV-joint boot.

Assembled, the spherical kafon looks like a giant tumbleweed or seed head. And like the dandelion puff it moves with the wind. The kafon is designed to be blown around, exploding antipersonnel mines as it rolls on the ground.

With the legs made from bamboo, they are easily replaceable. Once they are blown off it’s simply a matter of screwing on others, which means the kafon can be used over and over.

Inside the steel ball, a GPS device plots the kafon’s path as it rolls through an area that may be mined and shows on a computerized map exactly where it is safe to walk.

Hassini is still in the testing stages, notably to make sure there is 100 percent contact between the kafon’s “feet” and the ground, so no mines are missed.

Initial trials — some using explosives with the Dutch Defense Force and an in-the-field rolling test in Morocco last year — showed promising results.

“We know this is a working prototype and that we need to do lots of testing still,” said Hassani, saying the kafon will not be deployed in real situations until it is 100 percent proven.

The designer and his brother, Mahmud, 27, are now looking for sponsors, notably through an online platform. They hope to raise $160,000 in donations by next month to fund development and take the device to Afghanistan in August for more trials.

It will be the brothers’ first time home after fleeing Taliban-ruled Kabul. Massoud fled first in 1998, followed two years later by Mahmud, in arduous treks through Pakistan and Uzbekistan. They finally made their way to the Netherlands, where they were accepted as refugees and today hold Dutch citizenship.

Massoud landed a place at the Design Academy Eindhoven — regarded as one of the world’s foremost industrial design schools — where he first conceived the project in 2010.

“I had to design a toy from my childhood,” said the shaggy-haired inventor. “I went back into my childhood in a dream. I saw the toys we made and how they rolled into a minefield,” he said. “We could never get them back.”

Despite huge progress in mine-clearing in Afghanistan in recent years, it is still one of the world’s most mined countries.

Since 1989, around 650,000 antipersonnel mines, 27,000 antitank mines and more than 15 million other pieces of unexploded ordnance have been collected, according to the U.N.-funded Mine Action Coordination Center of Afghanistan.

Last June, the U.N. said there were still 5,233 “danger zones” covering 588 sq. km putting more than 750,000 people at risk.

At least 812 people were wounded or killed last year by mines, victim-triggered improvised explosive devices and other ordnance left over from the Afghan wars, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization Handicap International said.