Rats are now being trained to facilitate the rescue of survivors. The anticipated collapse of buildings due to a variety of natural disasters such as earthquakes that leave many trapped inside is what prompted the idea.
The project of a Belgian non-profit, APOPO Foundation, has begun to equip rats with tiny, high-tech backpacks to aid first responders in tracking survivors in the affected zones. Currently, the rats are being trained to find survivors in a replicated disaster zone. There, they must first locate the target person in an empty room, pull a switch on their vest that triggers a beeper, and then return to base. Once they return, their trainers reward them with a treat.
According to Donna Kean, a behavioral research scientist and leader of the project, “Rats are typically quite curious and like to explore—and that is key for search and rescue,” she said, adding that their adventurous spirit combined with their small size and excellent sense of smell makes them perfect for locating things in tight spaces.
Giant African rats equipped with video and microphone packs
In collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, the APOPO Foundation hopes to develop a backpack equipped with a video camera, two-way microphone, and location transmitter that helps first responders communicate with survivors.
Compared to the common brown rat with a four-year lifespan, the program run by APOPO uses African Giant Pouched Rats with a longer lifespan of around eight years at its base in Tanzania. The rats have been used for the detection of landmines and tuberculosis for over a decade.
Kean says, “Together with the backpack and the training, the rats are incredibly useful for search and rescue” although dogs have been incorporated into the training program, too.
Since 2017, GEA, a volunteer search and rescue organization together with APOPO began exploring the possibility of using rats in rescuing earthquake survivors. The project was only officially launched in April 2021 when Kean joined the team as a partner to support the initiative by funding the technology to allow first responders to communicate with victims via the rats provided by electrical engineer Sander Verdiesen.
Rats backpack to view earthquake survivor rescue zones
It was during his master’s internship at APOPO in 2019 at the Eindhoven University of Technology that Verdiesen began thinking about how to “apply technology to improve lives.” He was tasked with creating the first prototype of the rat backpack to help rescuers understand what was going on inside disaster zones.
His output consisted of a 3D-printed plastic container with a video camera that sent live footage to a receiver module on a laptop while saving a high-quality version on an SD card. This required attaching a neoprene vest to the rats, a material used for scuba suits.
Verdiesen flew to Tanzania to test out the equipment. He says that, initially, the rats “didn’t really know how to deal with it” but adapted quickly. He added that “by the end, they were just running around with the backpack on, no problem at all.”
Sizing down technology and adapting it for disaster zones hasn’t been easy. Nevertheless, it was determined that the backpacks work “better than expected.” Still, Verdiesen continued to refine the design even after his internship ended.
During the refining process, Verdeisen focused on the GPS. They had noticed that it was unable to penetrate the dense rubble and debris of collapsed buildings. He eventually solved the problem by employing an Inertial Measurement Unit. This is a location tracker used in the heels of firefighters’ boots.
Verdeisen said, “If you’re walking, your foot is going to be still every step or so—that’s where you can recalibrate. With the rats, we’ve yet to find that.”
He noted, however, that other engineers are working on similar projects. Yet, he’s hopeful they can find a solution.
Bulkiness of rats backpack an issue in rescue mission
Verdeisen packed more technology in the next rat backpack version design. This included incorporating things like a two-way microphone with a reduction in size as a priority.
The prototype weighted around 140 grams (4.9 ounces). Unfortunately, that was twice as heavy as originally intended. Verdeisen, however, says that its bulkiness was more of an issue. At that time, it was ten centimeters long (3.9 inches) and four centimeters deep (1.6 inches).
He explains that “the rats were walking up against something that they would normally be able to go under, and suddenly they can’t anymore.”
He anticipates that freeing up more space will upgrade the version of the backpack. He also hopes to achieve this by integrating everything onto a single printed circuit board. This will make the backpack “as small as possible,” a process he expects to be ready later this year. With the successful implementation of the new version, he believes one day it can help first responders “to locate somebody that would otherwise not be rescued.”
Kean is intensifying the complexity of the rats’ training environment in Tanzania so as “to make it more like what they might encounter in real life.” He is doing so by incorporating industrial sounds such as drilling to mimic real emergencies among other techniques.
According to observations, Kean says, “They have to be super confident in any environment, under any conditions, and that’s something that these rats are naturally good at.” She also maintains that the rats are responding well to the increasingly difficult simulations, so this is promising.
Rats considered due to their exposure to extreme environments
This mind-blowing project by the APOPO foundation considers the welfare of all the animals as a priority. To that end, they ensure they eat a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables. They also get daily playtime in a custom-built playroom.
Their training sessions are around fifteen minutes five days a week. They also live alone or with same-sex siblings in home cages. That is where they live out their days once they retire from working life. For the search and rescue rats, Kean says that training is very similar, with “just with a little bit of direction.”
According to Kean, rats are a special pick for the job because they face exposure to a variety of environments, sights, sounds, and people as part of a “habituation process.” Since they do so right from birth, that makes their gradual exposure to more extreme situations less stressful.
Kean and the team will create “levels to mimic multiple floors of a collapsed building” in the next stage of training. This is so the rats get a feel of the “real world scenarios.” Once they become accustomed to more complex environments, the project will move to Turkey, GEA’s base. There, training will continue for further preparation in more realistic environments.
Anticipative of positive results, the rats will potentially enter real-life situations. However, Kean and the team in Tanzania are now focused on getting the rats through their first phase of training. Then, hopefully, one day, they will be able to send them into the field.
Kean says, “Even if our rats find just one survivor at a debris site, I think we would be happy to know it’s made a difference somewhere.” However, the program is still in development. Kean estimates it will take at least nine to twelve months to train each rat.