These rats with backpacks are training to rescue earthquake survivors
8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 24, 2022
Earthquakes, flooding and hurricanes can cause enormous damage to infrastructure and trap people inside collapsed buildings. A new project from Belgian non-profit APOPO is training rodents to search the rubble of disaster zones for survivors, and kitting them out with tiny, high-tech backpacks to help first responders communicate with them.
The rats are trained by having them search for a human target in a room -- a stand-in for the victim. The training started with a simple search, find, recall sequence in an empty room, but the team has gradually increased the complexity of the environments, says Donna Kean, a behavioral research scientist and leader of the project.
For training purposes, the rats are using a simple pull-switch on a vest, but in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, APOPO is developing a 3D-printed backpack for the project. They plan to include a video camera, two-way microphone, and location transmitter, so that if the rats enter the field, search and rescue teams will be able to find and communicate with victims.
Seven rats are currently being trained for search and rescue at APOPO's base in Tanzania. APOPO uses African Giant Pouched Rats, which have a longer lifespan in captivity of around eight years, compared to the four years of the common brown rat.
Once the rats are confident in more complex environments, the project will move to Turkey, where GEA is based, for further preparation in more realistic environments. If that goes well, then the rats would potentially enter real-life situations -- although as the training is experimental, there is no timeline for this yet.