The U.S. Army Research Laboratory, collaborating with the Counter Explosives Hazards Center and engineers at U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., are studying whether rats can be trained to detect explosives.
Barron Associates Inc. of Charlottesville, Va., was chosen this past summer to develop and test a low-cost automated system that would be used to train rats to detect mines and IEDs.
Animals have proven capable of detecting explosives in lower concentrations than nonliving physical or chemical systems. While the Army currently uses trained dogs to sniff out explosives, their training is expensive. Finding a less expensive alternative would allow the Army to provide more animals to protect soldiers.
Brian Clark, senior research scientist for Barron Associates, says tens of millions of land mines are buried across the world and there’s a need for an expansion of current detection efforts.
“It’s cheap to deploy a land mine and very expensive to find them and get rid of them safely,” Clark says. “It costs $1 to deploy the mine and $1,000 to remove it.”
Acknowledging that dogs are used to clear mines and IEDs, Clark notes, “We’re expanding that effort by using rats, which have a keen sense of smell like dogs are cheap to obtain and can be trained in parallel with dogs.”
Clark says the rats are trained to recognize and respond to certain odors. “Their responses are largely involuntary, which we will be able to detect through a small sensor pack worn by the animal,” he points out. “The sensor pack takes data in real time, such as the rat’s heart rate and how it is moving, and relays that information to a central station while the animals are looking for odors and responding to them.”
Because of its light weight, a rat can walk on a mine without setting it off, while the software and sensors it wears give the controlling operator the data and coordinates of the mine.
“In response to an explosive odor, an animal’s heart rate or its temperature may increase, or it may move in a certain way, adjust its position or make a sound,” Clark says.
Barron Associates also is training rats to have a voluntary response to an odor, much like a dog might bark or sit when it detects an explosive odor.
“Rats have been trained in the lab to press a lever, and we may be able to train them to vocalize,” Clark says. “They make a sound that’s not heard by humans but can be picked up by sensors.
The first phase of the rat training used laboratory rats weighing about a pound, Clark says. The second phase is using giant African rats weighing up to 6 pounds because they live longer, are more resistant to disease, more robust, and can operate in higher temperatures.
About the author: Alan M. Petrillo is a Tucson, Ariz., freelance journalist who works in a wide variety of fields, writing for national and regional magazines and newspapers. He’s also the author of the mystery novel, Full Moon, and several books on historical military small arms.