A Tanzanian research team is focused on training an unusual candidate for human disaster response; rats.
The Belgian organisation Apopo is in charge of the initiative, which involves using giant African pouched rats equipped with tiny, high-tech camera backpacks to enter locations and aid rescue workers in locating survivors.
“Rats are typically quite curious and like to explore – and that is key for search and rescue,” says Donna Kean, a behavioural research scientist and leader of the project.
The rats are still not fit to be sent inside destroyed buildings, but they are being trained in a disaster simulator for 15-minute sessions five days a week, recreating a real rescue.
In the simulated workouts, the rats must locate the “trapped” human in the rubble, then pull a switch on their little vest, which activates a beeper and return to their handles, where they are given a treat.
The rodents’ backpacks have video cameras. Still, scientists hope to make it “as small as possible” without compromising on performance, as well as a two-way microphone and GPS transmitter to aid in searching for survivors and communicating with people.
APOPO is developing the backpacks in partnership with the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, with electrical engineer Sander Verdiesen developing the backpack technology.
The project began in 2021 after the volunteer search and rescue organisation GEA approached APOPO in 2017.
According to Kean, each rat will take at least nine to twelve months to train. The next step is to simulate more “real world scenarios,” with the rats being taken to settings that resemble “multiple floors of a collapsed building” as an immediate next stage.
The project will proceed to Turkey, where GEA is situated, to train further in the simulator before attempting real-life scenarios.