Rats with backpacks will be the savior of earthquake survivors - here's how

They're tiny but have a knack for saving human life.
Nergis Firtina
A "Hero Rat."
A "Hero Rat."


The Belgian non-profit organization APOPO trains rats to help earthquake survivors.

Called RescueRATs, these rats are preparing to save those under the earthquake debris with their high-tech backpacks on their backs.

As CNN reported, “Rats are typically quite curious and like to explore – and that is key for search and rescue,” says Donna Kean, a behavioral research scientist and leader of the project. She also adds that they train rats because they have a good sense of smell and can easily fit into small spaces.

How are the rats trained?

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 a switch on their vest to activate a beeper, and then make their way back to base to receive a treat.

To help first responders connect with survivors, APOPO is working with the Eindhoven University of Technology to create a backpack outfitted with a video camera, two-way microphone, and position transmitter.

Rats for human life

Although RescueRATs research is in its early stages, APOPO has two other projects under HeroRATs. The rats also detect tuberculosis (TB) and help landmine victims.

The training of APOPO's TB-detecting rats takes nine months to one year. They are given great care, including a healthy diet, frequent exercise, lots of one-on-one time, organized playing, and regular attention from a veterinarian and an on-site animal welfare officer.

The rats start to open their eyes around four weeks old and begin to get used to their environment and other humans. They are regularly handled by skilled professionals and exposed to the sounds and scents of daily human life.

The rats are taught to connect the click sound with a reward. They hear a click and are rewarded with delectable food when they are close to a TB-positive sputum sample. Then they learn to distinguish between TB-positive and TB-negative samples. The rats only hear a click and receive a reward if interact with the TB-positive sample.

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Ingenious in landmine detection

"A conventional mine-clearance approach uses machines and deminers with metal detectors. HeroRATs are added, they can significantly speed up operations. This makes considerable cost savings and gets people back on their land as quickly as possible," says APOPO.

Like TB detector ones, these rats are trained for nine months to one year. HeroRATs can detect the scent of explosives and ignore scrap metal. One HeroRAT can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes – this would take a manual deminer with a metal detector up to four days.

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