Rats are being trained to locate land mines and communicate their location by circling around them at Bucknell University. The Department of Defense funded project aims to perfect the training method, plus attach little backpacks to the rats so a laptop can track their position and map the mine field automatically. All the user will have to do is release the rats near a suspected mine field and watch the screen: R. Colin Johnson
Psychologist Kevin Myers holding a rat trained to detect land mines in his lab at Bucknell University.
Here is what Bucknell University says about it land-mine rats: Since the invention of land mines some seven centuries ago, activists, researchers and government officials have tried to root out the indiscriminant and deadly weapons with everything from metal detectors and robots to dogs, bees and rats.
The methods have, however, proved dangerous, labor-intensive and time-consuming.
Two Bucknell University professors are working with a U.S. Department of Defense contractor to develop faster and more sophisticated technology and methods to detect land mines. The team has devised a system to train rats to recognize and respond to the explosives, using materials that can be delivered anywhere with instructions that anyone can use.
Kevin Myers, an associate professor of psychology uses learning, memory and motivation to train the rats. Together with Joe Tranquillo, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, the team is working with Coherent Technical Services Inc. (CTSI). The U.S. Army Research Office has awarded the company and Bucknell $100,000 for Phase I of the project. Such contracts are designated for small businesses and academic research partnerships that address real problems with marketable technology.
Land mines are especially dangerous because they are often buried then lay concealed for years. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines describes land mines as indiscriminate weapons that kill and injure thousand of people each year, instilling fear and serving as a barrier to development.
The project is an "innovative yet low-tech solution" to address a problem in developing areas of the world, Myers said. The big advantage to training rats rather than larger animals is that the rats are small and light and do not trip the land mines, which can remain dangerous for years after they are installed.
In his lab at Bucknell, Myers is training rats to respond to the scent of land mines by doing a simple task: turning in circles. The project is a combination of psychology, animal behavior and engineering, Myers said.
Myers asked Tranquillo to collaborate with him on making the techniques easy for anyone to use. Tranquillo is working with student Matt Young Jr. in the University's new Richard J. Mooney Innovative Design Laboratory to develop the electrical, mechanical and thermal technology and software for the project. Graphic illustrations will provide users with step-by-step instructions on how to train and work with the rats in areas where land mines are present.
The rats will be outfitted with miniature backpacks and wireless transmitters that track their positions and movements. During the first part of their training, the rats learn to associate a mild buzz in the backpack – much like the "vibrate" setting in a cell phone--with getting a food reward. Eventually, the buzz itself acts as a reward that may be triggered when the rats complete certain tasks.
In the next phase of training, the rats are prompted to sniff various odors and are rewarded for doing something specific in response, such as turning to the left rather than the right, when the land mine odor is present. Eventually, the rats learn to behave more distinctively when they detect that odor.
If the project is successful, the contract could be extended for two years with an award of up to $750,000. In Phase II, the Army would provide support for recruiting private investors for the final phase, product development.