SAN FRANCISCO--Two Bucknell University professors are working with a U.S. Department of Defense contractor on training rats to recognize and neutralize landmines.
Not only is the system deemed to be innovative, but the academics claim it’s easy for just about anybody to use. "This is something that could drop out of the sky and give you everything you need to train rodents to sniff out land mines, even if the people who are using it can’t read or write," they said in a statement.
Provided it’s the training materials, and not the rodents, they plan to drop out of the sky, the idea sounds intriguing.
After all, landmines have plagued the world for some seven centuries, many lying concealed for years, and rooting them out to prevent injury and death has proved dangerous, labor-intensive and time-consuming.
Indeed, scientists have tried everything from metal detectors to robots, dogs and even bees in the past, but rats represent a new scientific tack.
Kevin Myers, an associate professor of psychology at Bucknell, who studies learning, memory and motivation as it relates to appetite and food preferences in rats has teamed up with Joe Tranquillo, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering on the project. Both scientists are also working with Coherent Technical Services Inc. (CTSI), and the U.S. Army Research Office has awarded the company and Bucknell $100,000 for phase one of the project.
The big advantage to training rats rather than larger animals, apparently, is that the rats are relatively small and light, so they don’t trip the land mines.
"Some people think we are sending off rats to blow up mines, and that's absolutely not the case," Myers said, though it’s a little unclear how the mines would be neutralized once discovered by the rats.
It seems the researchers are spending a lot more time on training the rats to find the mines, before deciding on just how to destroy them, with Myers noting in a statement that the process “is similar to how bomb-sniffing dogs are trained," and is a combination of psychology, animal behavior and engineering."
"There is a distinctive odor from the explosive in land mines, which diffuses in the soil. We have to train rats to recognize that. Rats' olfactory sensitivity is orders of magnitude higher than that of humans. We need to train the rats to regard that odor as significant by associating it with a food reward," he explained.