Buildings rarely collapse. Natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes can destroy entire towns, making it a daunting task for search and rescue teams trying to find survivors.
But an unlikely savior is being trained to help. it’s a mouse.
Conceived by Belgian nonprofit APOPO, the project equips rodents with small high-tech backpacks to help first responders search for survivors among the rubble of disaster areas.
“Rats are typically very curious and love to explore, which is key to search and rescue,” says behavioral research scientist Donna Kean, the project leader.
Along with their adventurous spirit, their small size and excellent sense of smell make rats great for finding things in tight spaces, says Keen.
Rats are now trained to find survivors in simulated disaster zones. They must first find their target in an empty room, pull the switch on their vest to ring the buzzer, and return to their base, where they will be rewarded.
While the rodents are still in the early stages of training, APOPO is working with the Eindhoven University of Technology to develop a backpack. This backpack is equipped with a video camera, two-way microphone, and location transmitter to help first responders communicate with survivors.
“The combination of backpacking and training makes rats very useful in search and rescue,” says Keane.
For over 10 years, APOPO has been training dogs and rats to smell mines and tuberculosis at its base in Tanzania. That program uses the African giant his pouched his rat, which has a long lifespan of about eight years in captivity compared to his four years in a common brown rat.
The search and rescue project had only officially started in April 2021, and when Kean joined the team, APOPO had been trying to get the idea off the ground for years, but the funding and the search and rescue to support it were lacking. There was a shortage of rescue partners. But when the volunteer search and rescue organization GEA approached his APOPO in 2017 about the possibility of using rats for its mission, the team began considering the idea.
A key component of the search and rescue mission was technology that enabled first responders to communicate with victims via rats. APOPO didn’t have this until electrician Sander Verdiesen got involved.
Verdiesen, who had a master’s degree at Eindhoven University of Technology aiming to “apply technology to improve lives”, did an internship at APOPO in 2019 to help rescuers better understand what’s going on. I was tasked with creating the first prototype of the Rat Backpack so that I could. within the disaster zone.
The prototype consisted of a 3D-printed plastic container with a video camera that sent live footage to a laptop’s receiving module, while storing a high-quality version on an SD card. It attaches to the rat with a neoprene vest, the same material used in scuba suits.
Verdiesen flew to Tanzania to test the equipment and said that at first the rats “really didn’t know how to deal with it” but quickly adapted. “In the end, they were running around with their backpacks and it was perfectly fine,” he adds.
Verdiesen volunteered to continue refining the design after his internship ended, as the backpack “worked better than expected.”
However, scaling down the technology and adapting it to disaster areas was not easy.
GPS can’t penetrate dense debris or the rubble of collapsed buildings, says Verdeisen. An alternative is the inertial measurement unit, a position tracker used in the heel of a firefighter’s boot.
“If you’re walking, your legs get stuck with each step. You can readjust here. As for rats, we haven’t found that yet,” he says. Other engineers are working on similar projects, so I hope they find a solution.
Verdeisen is also looking to pack more technology into the next version, such as a two-way mic, while reducing its size. Weighing about 140 grams (4.9 ounces), the prototype weighed twice as much as originally planned, but Verdeisen said it was 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) long, 4 centimeters (1.6 inches) deep and Bulky was more of an issue.
“The rats were walking against what they would normally be able to dive under, and suddenly they couldn’t dive anymore,” he explains.
To make it “as small as possible” without losing functionality, Verdeisen plans to integrate everything onto a single printed circuit board. This will free up more space. This upgraded version of the backpack is due for completion later this year, and he hopes one day it will help first responders “find someone who otherwise wouldn’t have been rescued.” increase.
Meanwhile, in Tanzania, Keane has increased the complexity of the rat training environment, “to approximate what they might encounter in real life”. This includes adding industrial sounds such as
So far, the results are promising. From her observations, Keane says rats respond well to increasingly difficult simulations. ”
Rats that are handled from birth are exposed to a variety of environments, sights, sounds and people as part of a “habituation process,” according to Keane, which reduces stress from progressive exposure to more extreme conditions. will be
Welfare is a top priority as animals are at the heart of APOPO’s projects and mission. Animals receive her 15-minute training 5 days a week and live alone or with same-sex siblings in their home cages.
You can also play daily in our custom built playroom while eating fresh fruits and vegetables. However, for search and rescue rats, the training is very similar, but “just a little bit of a shift,” says Keane.
The program is still in development, but Keane estimates it will take at least nine to 12 months to train each rat.
In the next phase of training, the team will create “levels that mimic multiple floors of a collapsed building” to get closer to “real-world scenarios,” Keen says. Once Rat feels more confident in a more complex environment, the project will be moved to his GEA base in Turkey for further preparation in a more realistic setting. If it works, the rats could get into real life situations.
But for now, Keen and the team in Tanzania are focused on getting the rats through the first phase of training, hopefully one day out in the field.
“Even if our rats find just one survivor at a rubble site, I think they’re happy to know that it made a difference somewhere,” says Keene.