Rats use GPS to root out land mines
June 8, 2012
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.
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.
“Because the rat associates the buzzer with food, you can use it to reward the rat for initiating some kind of action,” Associate Professor of Psychology Kevin Myers said. “We chose to teach them to turn in circles because that is not something they would do spontaneously. And it’s easy to detect when they’re doing it with a couple of motion sensors in the backpack.”
The wireless transmitter also enables the trainers to communicate with the rats in the field.
The U.S. Army Research Office has awarded Coherent Technical Services Inc. and Bucknell $100,000 for Phase I of the project.