Rats with Backpacks Could Rescue Earthquakes Survivors

Emily Meneses

Rats with backpacks, also called rescue rats, are the future. When the aftermath of an earthquake occurs, the rescue rats will be there. A non-profit organization from Belgium called APOPO officially launched in April 2021 and has been training rats to find victims who are trapped under buildings or who are injured and activate a switch on their backpacks to alert survivors who are present and in need of help.

How the rescue rat training works is that they have a simulation where it presents as if the rats were in the real world, and the first thing they would do is try to find people in need of help. People are placed in rooms, and the rats are then released to find them. When they do, the rats activate a switch on their backpacks, allowing people to track the location of where the rat is with the injured or stuck person. After their successes, they will be rewarded with a treat.

The reason why the idea of rats being rescuers came about has a very simple explanation. “Rats are typically quite curious and like to explore – and that is key for search and rescue,” says Donna Kean, leader of the project as well as a behavioral researcher. Though rats are indeed vastly curious, they have a high sense of smell, which helps them find survivors, and due to their small size, they can squeeze into tight openings and move more efficiently. How they got their backpacks was all because of Sander Verdiesen, an electrical engineer. Sander interned with APOPO in 2019 and was asked to make a prototype of the backpack for the rats. The backpack was made of a vest that was made of the same material as the scuba suits and had a 3D plastic container. It had a camera that could send live footage of where the rats were and send it back to a receiver module connected to a computer that also saved a better version of it on an SD card. When he tested the prototype on the rats, they didn’t like it at first but then adapted quickly; Sander says, “By the end, they were just running around with the backpack on, no problem at all.”

Although his prototype works, there are still a few things to work on, like the fact that GPS can’t pass through objects, but he and other engineers are working on this issue. Now that his internship has ended, he’s working on improving the backpack with more features like microphones to hear the rat’s surroundings and many more. Furthermore, for the rat’s training, they train in 15-minute sessions for 5 days a week, and after they are done with the training, they go to their cages with their same-sex siblings or alone. They get treated fairly by being fed a healthy diet of vegetables and fruits and getting to play in their custom playrooms. The program hopes to see them in action soon. Kean says, “Even if our rats find just one survivor at a debris site, I think we would be happy to know it’s made a difference somewhere.”