Equipping Rats With Backpacks To Find Victims Under Rubble

When it comes to demining or finding victims after a disaster, dogs are well-known to aid humans by sniffing out threats and trapped humans with ease. Less well-known, but no less impressive are rats, with the African giant pouched rat being the star of the show. Recently a student at the Dutch Technical University of Eindhoven (TU/e) has demonstrated how these rats can sniff out buried victims, aided by a high-tech backpack that gives them a communication link back to their human handler.

All of this is done in association with the Belgian-registered and Tanzania-based NGO APOPO, whose achievements include training gold medal winner Magawa the rat, who helped find 71 landmines and dozens more types of UXO over a 5-year career. These landmine-hunting rats are known as HeroRATs and have been helping demine nations since the 1990s. They may be joined by RescueRats in the near future.

Each RescueRat is equipped with a backpack that contains a camera and battery, as well as GPS and altimeter. Each backpack includes a button that the rat is trained to press when they have found a victim — essentially dropping a pin on their human rescuer’s maps.

Figuring out the location of the victim inside the rubble pile is the real challenge. This is where a (LoRa) radio beacon in the backpack is triangulated using receivers placed around the area, allowing the rescuers to determine with reasonable accuracy where to focus their efforts.

(Thanks to [Roel] for the tip!)

20 thoughts on “Equipping Rats With Backpacks To Find Victims Under Rubble

      1. Aye, but it won’t be, will it, because rats are low value… First thing I thought here is the rats will get stuck because of the cumbersome backpack and then it’ll just be declared lost because adding another rescue to the existing one, and risking anyone else still trapped won’t be logical. not cool.

        1. Not such low value after the several months of training it will take to make them useful in the role. And They are even more valuable when trained _and_ on-site.
          But I feel that fairing-in the camera would help. As a very experienced caver I know that anything which can get snagged will, and caves are a lot less full of rebar and cables than collapsed buildings.

          1. Of course, I was obviously exaggerating, I’m sure there’s some effort that would be put in for a resource that has taken time and effort to train, just that it’s nothing in the bigger scheme of things and I have a hunch that they eventually get seen as disposable. As a diver, I also feel like it should be significantly less flappy-snag-hazard. I can’t imagine the capacity for clarity of thinking and mindset that a caver must have, I start breathing heavily at just the thought of getting stuck – I took a sharp breath in thinking about these poor little guys getting stuck!

      2. What about a remote quick release of the back pack, in the event that the rat is obviously trapped and inaccessible? It might come back to base for a snack. You have the comms to do this. Not rocket science, rat science ;-0>

  1. GPS doesn’t work very well under concrete of any depth. LoRa doesn’t work very well through concrete/rubble (at least my experiences with LoRa is that it barely makes it through 80s wall construction). Not sure how useful this is unless your lost victim is in a forest/open plains. Awesome after a tsunami maybe?

    1. They are aware of this, as they mention in their site. That’s why they are proposing a signal triangulation (or, rather, pyramidation, needing to be 3d). For this method i suppose you don’t need LoRa or anything complicated but any plain signal, preferably of low frequency. (p.s. What a timing for the article!)

    2. I think a good addition would be to add a noise maker to the backpack and when the rat finds a person and hits the button the pack detaches from the rat and starts making noise so the rescuers will have something they could find without any technology at all (if Lora and GPS fail or don’t work as well as expected). And if they find the victim they also retrieve the backpack.

  2. I think it’s an ok idea but wouldn’t the rats just get lost in all the rubble or will the people un charge of this get the rats out very curious because my favorite animal is rats and I couldn’t bare for one to get stuck or lost or hurt.

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