One of the most dangerous weapons soldiers have to deal with in war are landmines and improvised explosive devices (IMDs).
These weapons are often left buried long after the war is over and are commonly triggered by civilians; especially children.
According to the UN, landmines kill 15,000 to 20,000 people every year.(1) Most of the victims were children, women and the elderly.
Live and forgotten landmines and IEDs are a global concern. The UN estimates that 78 countries worldwide must deal with the deadly reminders of past wars. In an effort to find these explosive devices and safely remove them from an area, the United States Army is hoping to turn to trained rats.
The program is even named R.A.T.S., which stands for Rugged Automated Training System.
According to the Department of Defense, the goal of the project is to:
“….develop a machine that will reliably train small animals to detect explosives or other compounds of interest and will provide an objective unbiased measurement of the animal’s sensitivity and accuracy.” (3)
Rats a Cheaper Alternative to Dogs
Even though dogs are commonly the go to animal when sniffing out bombs, research has proven that other animals, such as rats, have shown great potential for sniffing out explosive devices. Using rats instead of dogs for this job could give the army several advantages.
One of these advantages would be cost. According to Micheline Strand, chief of the Army Research Office’s Life Sciences Division:
“If we can demonstrate that rats can be trained inexpensively to be reliable detectors, then this method would not only lower costs for the Army but would also create new opportunities for using animals to detect anything from mines to humans buried in earthquake rubble.” (3)
It is currently very expensive to train dogs to detect explosives; furthermore, is also costly to transport the dogs to the site.
However, if the R.A.T.S. project is a success, several rats could be trained to sniff out bombs with the same amount of money it would take to train one dog. However, cost is not the only advantage.
Another advantage would be the rats’ size. Bigger is not always better.
Due to the smaller size of the bomb detection rats, they can go places that dogs cannot. This will allow for a more thorough search of an area. (3) Also, their small size would enable the army to transport several of the rats in the same space it would take to transport a single dog. Again, more rats would mean a more thorough search.
A Low Cost Land Mind IED Detection System
The project is expected to be conducted in three phases.
Phase one will encompass the research into a low-cost, but rugged system that can effectively train the rats to detect land mines and IEDs. The system will be designed to train animals up to 15 lbs. (2)
Phase two of the project will focus on the production of a prototype and research the best way to mass produce the system. The goal of phase two will be to develop the capability to mass produce R.A.T.S.
The third and final phase would be production and sale of R.A.T.S to countries around the world. Sales would focus on countries, such as Africa, Asia, and Central America, where demining operations are in great demand. (2)
Overall, it is hoped that the system will be successful enough to not only apply it to demining operations, but possibly to benefit search and rescue operations as well as homeland security issues.
At first glance, this system seems to be a radical idea. However, it is hardly different than training dogs to search for bombs. If the project can successfully train rats to find bombs at a much lower costs, then it is research worth funding.
It is research that has the potential to save thousands of lives.