RatPack Is A Wearable Fit For A Rodent

Rats are often seen as pests and vermin, but they can also do useful jobs for us, like hunting for landmines. To aid in their work, [kjwu] designed the RatPack, a wearable device that lets these valiant rats communicate with their handlers.

The heart of the build is an ESP32-CAM board, which combines the capable wireless-enabled microcontroller with a small lightweight camera. It’s paired with a TinyML machine learning board, and it’s all wrapped up in a 3D printed enclosure that serves as a backpack to fit African Giant Pouched rats.

The RatPack can provide a live video feed. However, its main purpose is to track the rat’s movements through the use of an accelerometer. This data is then fed to the machine learning subsystem, which analyzes it to detect certain gestures the rats have been trained to make. The idea is that when the rat identifies an object of interest, such as a landmine, it will perform a predetermined gesture. The RatPack would then detect this, and transmit a signal to the rat’s handlers. Given a rat’s limbs are all on the bottom of its body, this approach is useful. It’s kind of hard to ask a rat to press a button on its own back, after all.

Finding and carefully disposing of unexploded ordnance is a problem facing many societies around the world. We’re lucky in many cases that the rats are helping out with this difficult and dangerous job.

Sappers clearing the last mines from the beach front of a former French luxury hotel, now in use as a rest club for troops of 3rd Division, 15 July 1944.

The Long Tail Of War: Finding Unexploded Ordnance Before It Finds Us

Long after the enemy forces have laid down their arms, peace accords have been signed and victories celebrated, there is still a heavy toll to be paid. Most of this comes in the form of unexploded ordnance, including landmines and the severe pollution from heavy metals and other contaminants that can make large areas risky to lethal to enter. Perhaps the most extreme example of this lasting effect is the Zone Rouge (Red Zone) in France, which immediately after the First World War came to a close comprised 1,200 square kilometers.

Within this zone, contamination with heavy metals is so heavy that some areas do not support life, while unexploded shells – some containing lethal gases – and other unexploded ordnance is found throughout the soil. To this day much of the original area remains off-limits, though injuries from old, but still very potent ordnance are common around its borders. Clean-up of the Zone Rouge is expected to take hundreds of years. Sadly, this a pattern that is repeated throughout much of the world. While European nations stumble over ordnance from its two world wars, nations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere struggle with the legacy from much more recent conflicts.

Currently, in Europe’s most recent battlefield, more mines are being laid, booby traps set and unexploded shells and other ordnance scattered where people used to live. Clearing these areas, to make them safe for a return of their inhabitants has already begun in Ukraine, but just like elsewhere in the world, it is an arduous and highly dangerous process with all too often lethal outcomes.

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