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Changing Mines

Daniel Wolf with a land mine clearing device

One day 10 years ago Daniel Wolf '86 awoke to a radio report about Cambodian civilians who were attempting to clear their country of thousands--possibly millions--of land mines by poking the ground with sticks. "That's crazy," Wolf remembers saying to himself.

He spent the next two hours designing a mine-clearing device in his head, before getting up and jotting it down on graph paper.

Wolf's design eventually became the Armadillo, a simple and inexpensive device that detonates land mines without jeopardizing the safety of its operator. Since then, Wolf has been working to get his invention into the hands of people who need it. In 1993 he founded Terra Segura (which means "safe earth" in Catalan), a nonprofit organization designed to advance technical solutions to clearing land mines. While the U.S. government has developed large-scale, military-style devices to clear land mines, Wolf's Armadillo is decidedly low-tech and is easily repaired with parts that can be found in the Third World. Run by remote control or with a combination of winches, the 900-pound Armadillo runs a dozen steel rollers over even the most uneven terrain and detonates the land mines in its path.

Wolf notes that increased publicity around the land mine issue in recent years--much of which came after the death of Princess Diana, an outspoken anti­land mine activist--has resulted in money being funneled almost exclusively to diplomatic efforts. Clearing land mines became an afterthought, he says, though more than 100 million mines are still in the ground.

"We could negotiate and adopt and ratify a treaty changing the orbit of the moon," Wolf said. "And then two years later most people would begin to realize that it's still where it was before."

Lacking sufficient government or foundation support for his nonprofit, Wolf recently decided to spin off a private company, Ploughshare Technologies, to market and distribute the Armadillo around the world. The for-profit route, he believes, is the best way to serve his humanitarian cause. Because the Armadillo is so inexpensive, property owners and de-mining contractors who operate in the Third World can actually afford to clear land and make a return on their initial investment. "They're going to make economically rational choices and go for the cheaper alternative," said Wolf.

A decade after launching his fight against land mines, Wolf acknowledges that it hasn't been easy. But despite going into debt and confronting obstacles to his pragmatic approach, the former political science professor is now dedicated to saving lives full-time. "If I stop doing this, it won't just be another person leaving the fold," he said. "It will be the disappearance of a piece of technology that a lot of people really need out there."

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