His Land Mine-Hunting Robot Digs Communities Out of Danger

Richard Yim, works in his computer in the workshop / lab located in Phnom Penh's Tuol Kork district. Mr. Yim expects to have a working Jevit prototypr by September 2019.

Source Photographs by Enric Català Contreras for OZY

Why you should care

Because his robots could help children run free again.

When Richard Yim moved to Canada at age 13, he was in for a rude shock. Children of all ages were running around freely and wildly, and none of them seemed to fear losing a limb or their life. “It was something so simple, the freedom to walk around,” he says. That freedom did not quite exist back in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Yim, now 25, wasn’t a prisoner, but he and millions of others in his homeland were held captive by land mines and other explosives buried under the ground. These are remnants of violent conflicts that began during World War II and continued during the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge regime and the K5 Plan to seal off the Cambodia-Thailand border.

Cambodia is by no means the only country that is riddled with mines — the problem extends from World War II leftovers in Germany to ongoing strife in Yemen — but the Southeast Asian nation is among the most highly affected. According to the HALO Trust, an organization in the U.K. that trains deminers and has been operating in Cambodia for decades, 64,000 casualties have been reported since 1979. Children are under constant watch, Yim says, always sticking to the same routes to and from school. Around 50 percent of the country’s mines have reportedly been cleared, which still leaves behind a huge number considering that one estimate pegged the total at 10 million mines.

Human-led demining is painstaking and dangerous. The solution? Meet Jevit.

jevit 2

Armed with an engineering degree from the University of Waterloo, Canada, Yim first set up Landmine Boys (now Demine Robotics) with his friends in 2016. Jevit (which means “life” in Khmer) was born that year, and its fifth version is now in the making at the company’s facility in Phnom Penh.

The first prototype was built to see if it was even possible to dig out a mine using a robot without it exploding, and subsequent versions added mobility, cameras and remote access. At this point, Jevit is the only unmanned humanitarian mine-removal robot that can dig out and clear land mines to safe detonation spaces. 

I’m solving a forgettable problem. We want to be on the right side of history.

Richard Yim

Yim’s goal is audacious: to actually achieve Landmine Free 2025, a global campaign led by Mines Advisory Group and the HALO Trust. That means clearing roughly 100 million anti-personnel mines over the next six years, an impossible task with humans. “I am a trained deminer,” says Yim. “I know how difficult it is for them to do this. How can we ask a human being to extract mines with gardening tools?”

While militaries use high-tech drones and sophisticated robots to clear mines in active war zones, humanitarian bomb removal flies completely under the radar. “This frustrates me,” Yim says, clearly agitated, though he adds Cambodia’s government has been supportive.

 

Generally soft-spoken and calm in demeanor, exuding compassion and devotion, Yim is noticeably riled by roadblocks such as apathy toward human life. “There are people who work in this industry who question the need for machines because human deminers are easily replaceable and cost less,” he points out. “I’m solving a forgettable problem. We want to be on the right side of history.”

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Richard Yim, Russell Wong and Jared Baribeau of Demine Robotics discuss technical issues related to Jevit.

Expected to be priced at around $50,000, Jevit can clear one mine in less than five minutes, depending on depth — and only takes one person to operate — while several deminers can take 25 minutes or more to do the same. Human deminers earn around $300 a month, and work in teams.

Video by Demine Robotics

Yim is satisfied with the pace of progress. In fact, during live munition testing, Jevit was able to excavate explosives in under a minute. “Three and a half years is a very short span of time to build a new piece of technology on a shoestring budget,” he says. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign from which Demine Robotics raised more than $37,000, a cash infusion from an angel investor (who has not yet been named publicly) and a collaboration with United Nations peacekeepers, a fully deployable Jevit is expected to roll out in September.

Of course, a land mine–free world in six years remains far-fetched. “This is far from being realistic, as new developments in mines are [producing] a new generation of mines, while armed conflicts continue in different countries that introduce mines and explosive remnants of war,” says Maki H. Habib, professor of robotics and mechatronics at the American University in Cairo. “In order to achieve high accuracy with good removal rates, removing land mines (mainly anti-personnel mines) requires good and reliable technology, continuous funding, effective logistics, awareness and trained reliable local personnel.”

Deminer

Jevit, the deminer Robot (left), and the remote control unit that manuevers it.

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The inner shells of a disarmed cluster bomb on the lab shelves at Demine Robotics’ lab in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a reminder of the power of destruction these artifacts have.

Working with a team of young engineers, Yim says his life revolves around work and reading the news nearly four hours a day. Peou Ponna, 23, who works with Yim, finds him deeply inspiring and supportive. “He never behaves like a boss and is full of creative ideas,” says Ponna. Adds Ratanaktepy Sam, 27, Yim’s fiancée: “He left Cambodia for a better life. He could have gone anywhere and done anything. But he decided to give back to his country and community.”

There is a personal angle to Yim’s fire too, although he doesn’t like to talk about it. He lost his aunt to a mine explosion when he was 8. “People say my tragedy has birthed this project, which is untrue,” says Yim, whose family was initially reluctant to let him pursue this line of work. “Like in every Asian family, they wanted me to be a doctor,” he laughs. Now they’re backing him with all their might.

“Even if there was no personal connection,” he says, “I would have done exactly this.”

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The Demine Robotics team (from left): Jared Baribeau (CTO), Russell Wong (Autonomous System Lead), Richard Yim (CEO), Conrad Heidebrecht (Remote Control System Lead), Borami Ung (Software Developer), Arunroth Ven (Mechanical Engineering Lead).

OZY’s 5 Questions for Richard Yim

  • What’s the last book you read? Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel. I don’t read books much! 
  • What do you worry about? That I won’t make a difference. 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Family. 
  • Who’s your hero? Elon Musk. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To visit every country in the world.

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