Belgian relief organization APOPO has begun training African rats to search for earthquake victims under the rubble using a special backpack on their backs. Animals by smell will determine the location of a person, and then press a special button to give a signal.
The backpack was designed by students of the Technical University of Eindhoven. It includes an alarm button and a location sensor.
Several years ago, APOPO received a request from Turkey to test the ability of rats to search for survivors under the rubble of collapsed buildings after earthquakes.
As part of the RescueRats project, student Sander Verdisen developed a 3D-printed backpack with the necessary electronics in 2019. He traveled to Tanzania to test and improve his design. It is there that the APOPO training center is located, where rats are trained for work. After the internship, the student continued to work on the prototype. As a result, his team has developed a durable little backpack with an improved built-in camera and batteries that will last longer. A panic button will be placed under the rat's neck so that the animal can notify rescuers when it finds a victim.
Establishing communications has become a separate problem, because GPS-navigation underground does not work. However, in December 2022, student Bram van Kasteren defended his master's thesis, the materials of which will remove this barrier.
Van Casteren worked with radio triangulation. Its system tracks multiple measurement points to determine the final location of an object. The student suggested placing several antennas around the rubble and transmitting the signal through the antenna in the rat's backpack. Receivers will pick out the strongest signal by reflection. The central receiver software will then determine where it is coming from. The more antenna receivers you use, the more accurate the positioning will be.
Van Kasteren designed the PCB with the altimeter, antenna and GPS module. He tested his design on a field hockey field. Now it will be tested in an environment where there are obstacles to signal transmission.
It is also planned to add a semblance of a walkie-talkie to the rat's backpack so that the rescuer can talk with the victim.
Meanwhile, rat training at the APOPO training center in Tanzania is in full swing. In a building where a disaster scenario is recreated, the animal must seek out a volunteer despite distractions (including an open refrigerator with food).
In the meantime, APOPO rats help find landmines and other explosives. An animal is able to check an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes, while it takes four days for a well-trained sapper. At the same time, rats are out of the risk zone, as they are too light to blow up a mine.
Since 2007, APOPO has also been using rats to detect tuberculosis. Rodents have helped determine the presence of the disease more than 25,000 times in nearly 850,000 sputum samples from potentially infected people in African countries. A rat is able to test 100 samples in 20 minutes, whereas a researcher can only process 25 samples per day.