Belgian NGO is training rats to carry backpacks. Here’s why

RatHowever, being prepared to step in as a hero is unlikely to happen.

The rodents were fitted with small, state-of-the-art backpacks as part of a project, developed by the Belgian non-profit organization APOPO, to assist first responders in hunting down people Survive among the ruins in disaster zones.

“Rats are usually quite curious and love to explore – and that is key for search and rescue,” said Donna Kean, a behavioral scientist and lead author of the project.

According to Kean, rats are ideal for finding things in confined spaces because of their small size, keen sense of smell and adventurous nature.

The rats are currently being taught to look for survivors in a disaster relief simulation. They must first find the target individual in an unoccupied room, press the switch on their vest to trigger a beep, then return to base to claim the reward.

While the rodents are still in the early stages of training, APOPO is working with Eindhoven University of Technology to develop a backpack equipped with a video camera, two-way microphone and locator transmitter to help the rodents. First responders communicate with survivors.

“Along with backpacks and training, rats are incredibly useful for search and rescue,” says Kean.


At its facility in Tanzania, APOPO has been training dogs and rats for more than ten years in detecting odors of tuberculosis and landmines. Its programs use the African Giant Kangaroo, which can live up to eight years in captivity compared to the typical brown rat’s four years.

APOPO has been trying to start a search and rescue project for many years but lacks the funding and search and rescue partners to support it. This initiative was only officially launched in April 2021 when Kean joined the team. However, the team began investigating the concept after the volunteer search and rescue group GEA approached APOPO in 2017 about the possibility of using mice in its missions.

Technology that allows first responders to talk to victims through mice is an important part of search and rescue operations. Before electrical engineer Sander Verdiesen joined, APOPO lacked this.

Verdiesen, who is studying for a master’s degree in technology at Eindhoven University of Technology, interned at APOPO in 2019. He was charged with developing the initial version of the mouse backpack, which will assist rescuers in understanding be what is happening inside the disaster area.

The prototype is a 3D-printed plastic box with a video camera that sends video directly to the receiver module on the laptop while also recording a high-definition copy on the SD card. Using a vest made of neoprene, the same material as a diving suit, it adhered to the mice.

Verdiesen flew to Tanzania to test the device and said that at first the rats “didn’t really know how to deal with it” but adapted quickly. “In the end, they just run around with backpacks, no problem at all,” he added.

The challenge of building small technology

Verdiesen continued to improve the design even after his internship ended because the backpacks performed “better than expected.”

However, it is not easy to miniaturize the technology and modify it for disaster areas.

According to Verdeisen, GPS cannot penetrate the rubble and rubble of dense buildings. The inertial measurement unit, a position-tracking device mounted in the heel of a firefighter’s shoe, offers one option.

“If you’re walking, your foot will be stationary with each step – that’s where you can recalibrate. With mice, we haven’t figured that out yet,” he said. Other engineers are working on similar projects, so he hopes they can find a solution.

Verdeisen is also trying to reduce the size of the next version while adding more technology, such as a two-way microphone. The prototype weighs twice as much as expected, weighing about 140 grams (4.9 ounces), but Verdeisen claims bulkiness was an issue, measuring 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) long and 4 centimeters (1,3 inches) thick. 6 inches).

“The rats were going against something they normally could get under, and suddenly they couldn’t walk anymore,” he explains.

Verdeisen intends to consolidate everything into a single printed circuit board, which will free up more space, to make it “small as possible” without sacrificing any functionality. He thinks this improved backpack could one day allow first responders to “find someone who otherwise wouldn’t be rescued.” It will be available later this year.

Rodents to the rescue

Meanwhile, in Tanzania, Kean is increasing the complexity of the mouse training environment, “to make it resemble what they might encounter in real life.” That includes adding industrial sounds like drills to mimic real emergencies.

The preliminary findings are encouraging; As Kean observed, the mice were responding well to increasingly difficult simulations. “They have to be very confident in any environment, in any situation, and that’s what these rats are very strong in,” she added.

As part of the “living process”, the treated rats were exposed to a variety of locations, sights, noises, and people from birth. Kean claims that this makes being exposed to more and more extreme situations less distressing.

Caring for animals is APOPO’s priority because animals are at the heart of its activities and mission. These animals received 15 minutes of training, five days a week, and they stayed in the home cage alone or with siblings of the same sex after inactivity.

Eating a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, they also have a daily playtime in a specially built playroom – although for search and rescue rats the training is very similar, “just with a bit of direction,” Kean said.

The program is still under development, but Kean estimates it will take at least nine to 12 months to train each rat.

According to Kean, the team will develop “levels that simulate multiple stories of a collapsed structure” in the following round of training and move closer to “real-world scenarios”. The experiment will go to Turkey, where the GEA is based, for further training in more realistic surroundings as the mice get comfortable in more complex environments. The mice can then interact with people in real-life situations if that works well.

For now, however, Kean and the Tanzania team are focused on getting the rats through their initial training round and hopefully one day they’ll be on the field.

“Even if our mice found only one survivor at the debris site, I think we would be happy to know it made a difference somewhere,” Kean added. .

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