Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods occur yearly around the globe. And sadly, many people are gravely affected, and some lose their lives due to these incredibly destructive disasters.
For earthquakes, it’s a painstaking task to perform search and rescue operations for survivors in collapsed structures. But a group of scientists already devised an ingenious idea to help survivors, especially those trapped among rubble in disaster zones.
APOPO, a Belgian non-governmental organization, is now training rats with tiny backpacks to help first responders look for earthquake survivors in disaster zones. This non-profit organization has been training giant pouched rats they call HeroRATs and dogs to detect landmines and tuberculosis for over a decade.
The program uses an African giant pouched rat, commonly known as the Gambian pouched rat. These rat species are known for their longer lifespan of around eight years in captivity than common brown rats, with about four years.
Scientists are training 170 rats in the early stages of the program with homemade prototype backpacks. They have yet to go to a real earthquake site and are being trained first in a simulated debris site.
In training, the rats must first find the target person in an empty room. Then, they must pull a switch on their kit that triggers a beeper. After that, the rats need to return to the base. And if successful, they are rewarded with a treat.
According to Dr. Donna Kean, a behavioral research scientist working on the project, rats are perfect for search and rescue-type works because they can get into tight spaces that are difficult to reach for humans at first. In addition to their small size and keen sense of smell, rats are also excellent at surviving in different environments.
APOPO is currently working with the Eindhoven University of Technology to develop a backpack equipped with a two-way microphone, video camera, and location transmitter to allow rescue teams to talk to survivors.
The prototype backpack containing the video camera will also potentially send live footage to a laptop’s receiver module and save a high-quality video on an SD card.
So far, the program is still in progress, but the scientists estimate it will take approximately nine to 12 months to train each rat. Then, the trained rats are expected to be sent to Turkey, a place prone to earthquakes, to work with a search and rescue team.
There has always been a misconception about rats that they are dirty and unhygienic. However, this program proves that they are so much more than that. They can be heroes!