The Explosion Artist
Massoud Hassani’s plan to rid the world of landmines
Massoud Hassani’s incredible ambition is to rid the world of landmines in the next ten years. If successful, this would mean doing it one hundred times faster than current methods allow. The Afghan-born Dutch artist and designer first caught the public’s attention with Mine Kafon, launched on Kickstarter in 2012. The wind-powered spheres made of recycled materials were an elegantly simple way to clear minefields and brought urgently needed attention to the issue. Now he has returned with a decidedly more high-tech solution: aerial drones that locate and detonate mines. Throughout this journey — involving collaborations with military experts, demining NGOs and world-renowned museums — Hassani has embraced the unconventional role of an artist trying to solve a worldwide human-rights problem.
Growing up on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Massoud and his brother, Mahmud, built wind-powered toys from scavenged materials and raced them across the desert expanses surrounding their home. After their father was killed in the crossfire of a battle in the early nineties, the family left Afghanistan, eventually settling in the Netherlands as refugees. It was there that Massoud realized that his love for making things could become a career, and took up studies at Design Academy Eindhoven. After exploring more conventional product-design projects, he returned to the toys he and Mahmud had created as kids, coming to a larger realization along the way:
During my thesis, I did more research on those kinds of objects and tried to enlarge one of them to see how it works. That was a translation from a toy into an artistic product. In my mind, I went back in time to see why we were making these things as kids. In the location where we were playing, there were a lot of landmines. The connection between the toy and landmines became very clear. I wanted to create a project to destroy landmines, because they were destroying our toys and other kids.
The resulting project, Mine Kafon, offered a novel solution to a seemingly intractable problem. There are an estimated one hundred million undetonated anti-personnel mines around the world — remnants of conflicts dating back to World War II that continue to kill fifteen to twenty thousand people each year and injure countless others. Traditional demining efforts are expensive, dangerous, and slow, requiring individual workers to wade through minefields in heavy armored suits, wielding metal detectors. In contrast, Hassani’s design can be constructed cheaply from recycled materials and set loose in a minefield to roam at the will of the wind.
Aside from these functional benefits, Mine Kafon has an undeniable aesthetic beauty. The tumbling dandelion-like structure recalls Dutch sculptor Theo Jansen’s Strandbeests, similarly fashioned from repurposed industrial materials and eerily imbued with life by the wind. Hassani’s work even caught the eye of MoMA’s Senior Curator of Design, Paola Antonelli, who included Mine Kafon in the museum’s 2014 Design and Violence show. More exhibitions around the world followed, and the project became something of a viral sensation, with the elegance of the idea — and Hassani’s inspiring story — propelling the pressing issue of landmines through social media and beyond.
Mine Kafon also garnered attention from the Dutch Ministry of Defense, which evaluated the design’s effectiveness in their test minefields, ultimately determining that the project was not practical for operational use but still valuable as a tool for raising awareness.
The contrasting worlds in which Hassani operates certainly raise questions about what an artist and designer can bring to an issue that’s more traditionally associated with military experts and NGOs. He sees his outsider status as an advantage, explaining, “you see everything very differently. There’s nothing bad or good, so you try many ways.” Anton Chekhov said that “the role of the artist is to ask questions, not answer them,” a sentiment Hassani echoes in describing the original Mine Kafon:
The first project was more to make people think about the issues and find solutions. We wanted to show the cheapest way that people can make it themselves — from garbage materials. This is an artistic approach. You give an example to get people thinking. Why would somebody spend so much time thinking about landmines if they are not living in those areas?
But he isn’t satisfied with simply being an artistic provocateur. Recognizing that his project’s popularity sparked public conversation about landmines without yielding any truly scalable solutions, he observes, “the main question was how can we develop something long term and very systematic? There still aren’t good solutions, so you need to do it yourself.” Despite this bootstrap mentality, Hassani and his brother are not going it alone. Beyond funding research and development, the 2012 Mine Kafon campaign allowed them to build a devoted community around the project, including many who were eager to contribute ideas and expertise in addition to money:
We got a lot of comments from the Kickstarter community online. We got emails from kindergarteners who were sending drawings showing how we can improve it. Also from professors in their seventies mentioning the same ideas. That was very interesting. We also got newer ideas. People said, “Why are you not using something high tech?”
Hassani credits such good-natured challenges with inspiring his new project: the Mine Kafon Drone. Enlisting the help of students and other volunteers, he and his brother have developed a three-part system for clearing mines with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). First, they conduct high-level 3D imaging to map the terrain of a mine-laden area, identifying potential danger zones. A metal-detector-equipped drone then sweeps the area, pinpointing mines’ exact locations. Finally, a robotic arm deploys a timed detonating device, destroying the mine once the drone is a safe distance away.
Aside from the obvious benefits of keeping humans out of harm’s way, automating this process allows for a more systematic approach — turning an issue of nearly unfathomable proportions into a simple math problem. He estimates that with as few as forty drones in each of the sixty affected countries, they will be able to complete the job in the next ten years. If a decade sounds like a long time, consider that accomplishing the same thing with current demining techniques is estimated to take more than one thousand years.
With his current campaign, Hassani is sharing the prototypes he’s been building for the past three years, relishing the opportunity to invite past supporters and drone aficionados to take part in making the Mine Kafon Drone a reality:
With this new project, there is a bigger community who better understand the technology, and they are already suggesting how we can improve it. So many people feel involved. They ask really smart questions about battery lives, mine detection, and fly times. Recently, somebody contacted us who developed sniffing technology. Even in water, they can sniff explosives, and also below the ground, so they suggested adding that to the drone.
If the first Mine Kafon reflected Hassani’s personal history and unique design sensibility, the Mine Kafon Drone is notably of-the-moment — a logical component in a collective vision of a future full of unmanned aerial vehicles that carry out tasks. Hassani describes the eye-opening experience of attending one of Europe’s largest trade shows devoted to drone technology:
There are hundreds of companies that want to do services for the drone industry. There is already insurance for the drones. There are maintenance companies. We don’t have to do everything ourselves. There is an infrastructure already. It’s such a new industry, but I think in a year’s time, this is going to be a really big network.
In a tech environment that’s often critiqued for promoting solutions in search of a problem, it’s refreshing to see a creative visionary with an appetite for pursuing such seemingly divergent paths towards a single, altruistic goal. In contrast to the uncompromising certainty of a stereotypical startup founder, Hassani seems to find strength in embracing others’ ideas, harnessing the momentum of winds that blow in his direction. After using the art world and media’s enthusiasm for the original Mine Kafon to raise awareness about the urgency of this issue, he is now tapping into the rapidly developing drone industry as a platform for — literally — spreading the project far and wide.
This fall, Massoud and Mahmud Hassani will return to Afghanistan for the first time since leaving eighteen years ago. They will deliver a Mine Kafon sculpture to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which will exhibit it as symbol of solidarity. Then they’ll travel to northern Afghanistan to field test the design and conduct DIY building workshops in schools. They plan to source locally available materials, allowing people in the region to construct their own rolling detonators. The trip will in some ways mark the completion of the first Mine Kafon project and allow them to focus fully on the development of the drone. Massoud is optimistic about its potential but also aware that seeing a drone in the air currently carries a more sinister association for many Afghans:
The drone will not be finished, but we will bring it to test it and see how people react. We have read a lot of comments online, recently. People from the Afghan community are very proud because they see it as one of their own inventions. They are seeing that Afghan people can invent something interesting and we can rebuild our country. In terms of drones themselves — of course, our country has had a bad experience with drones, especially because usually they are used for surveillance or security. But we want to show that technology is not always harmful. Maybe we can also use technology for good. We can inspire people to use the technology in their daily lives.
For us, it is an emotional feeling — going back somewhere we haven’t been for a really long time. We have friends and family members there we haven’t seen for all this time. Also the purpose — to have something for the community, for the country, that they can use for their own security. It’s going to be a very important step for us.
You can support Massoud Hassani’s work by visiting the Mine Kafon Drone Kickstarter campaign, which runs until August 31st.
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By Nick Yulman, Senior Curation Specialist, Design & Tech