Rats can be deployed as saviours of earthquake survivors

A project trains rats to locate humans within quake debris sites.

Natural disasters, most of the time triggered by climate crisis, had been responsible for economic losses of $313 billion in 2022, globally. It has been estimated that disasters such as earthquakes and typhoons may become more frequent due to climate change with devastating effects on human lives.

In this context, expertly-trained search and rescue teams quickly mobilize to locate and extricate victims trapped inside collapsed building. However, such efforts are slowed by limited tools that are capable of closely looking under the debris.

It is here a project of significance has been devised. Path-breaking results have been achieved in training rats in rescue operations. As rats are small in size and extremely agile, they have been seen as complementing the existing search and rescue initiatives.

Hero Rats project by Belgian non-profit APOPO

Thanks to a project by the Belgian non-profit APOPO, this project is aimed at training rats to locate humans while equipped with a technology-enabled backpack to enable real-time wireless audio-visual communication from within the debris site.  The backpacks being developed by APOPO in a collaboration with Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, runs the technology developed by electrical engineer Sander Verdiesen. The project titled ‘Hero Rats’ is spearheaded by 33-year-old research scientist Dr. Donna Kean from Glasgow.

The project began in 2021, first proposed after volunteer search and rescue organization GEA approached APOPO to work together in 2017. The rats of APOPO (Anti-Personnel Mine Demining Product Development), founded in 1998 by two students at the University of Antwerp, have now detected more than 130,000 landmines and other explosives worldwide.

Size of the animal is an advantage

It is possible for a rat to check an area with the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes. In comparison, a well-trained de-miner can take four days for the same. Moreover, the rats themselves are not in danger, as they are too light to detonate the mine.

Since 2007, the rats are also deployed to smell specific odours of tuberculosis. So far, they have now managed to detect tuberculosis more than 25,000 times in nearly 850,000 sputum samples from potentially infected people in African countries.

Rats are able to check 100 samples in 20 minutes, where as a researcher with microscopy can only process 25 samples a day. Right now, the NGO works on locating victims in disaster areas, as well as searching for contraband in container terminals.

Sanjeev Ramachandran

A journalist with 23 years of experience, Sanjeev has worked with reputed media houses such as Business Standard, The Ne More »

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