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Rats with Tiny Backpacks Could Be Key in Earthquake Rescues

rats for earthquake rescues

Rats have often been thought of as gross pests. But their penchant for exploration could turn them into heroes in times of an earthquake. 

Belgian nonprofit APOPO, which specializes in training animals to save lives, has created special backpacks for rats to wear to assist emergency crews with locating survivors after earthquakes have occurred. 

Rats are the perfect animal for the job due to their keen sense of smell, small size, and passion for adventure. 

Scientists aren’t quite ready to send rats into collapsed buildings. Currently, they are training them in a simulated disaster area. They undergo 15-minute sessions five days a week to prepare for ‘the real thing.’

The simulated exercises involve the rats finding people ‘trapped’ in the rubble. Once found, the rats pull a switch on their vest to trigger a beep. Then they return to their handles where they are rewarded with a treat. 

The backpacks feature a video camera that scientists are working on making as small as possible without losing functionality. They will also contain a two-way microphone and a location transmitter so survivors can communicate with emergency teams and be found and rescued. 

rats with backpacks for earthquake search and rescue

rats with backpacks for earthquake search and rescue

The technology is being worked on by APOPO in collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, developed by electrical engineer Sander Verdiesen. 

The project was first suggested by GEA, a search and rescue organization that approached APOPO about collaborating in 2017. It officially launched in 2020. 

It will be a while before we actually see any rat rescue missions. Scientists are predicting it will take 9-12 months to train each rat. 

They are currently working on introducing the rats to more “real world scenarios” including trying their skills on areas that simulate “multiple floors of a collapsed building.”

The project will eventually move to Turkey, home of GEA, where the rats will do more simulator training before moving on to real-life scenarios.

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