Rats That Sniff Out Landmines and TB: Bart Weetjens at TEDxBratislava (Transcript)

 

Bart Weetjens – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

All right. So we get a lot of crazy ideas here and I’m coming with maybe even a more crazy idea.

We train rats, to save human lives, by detecting landmines and tuberculosis. I brought a live rat here. It’s not really a live one but it’s actually an example of a giant rat. And that’s what we train. We train giant rats.

And this may seem really crazy to you but actually it’s an example of what the professor in the school earlier expressed, it’s actually a good example of a design process.

Because this may sound crazy to you at first glance but in practice, if you look at the situation, the context in which these rats are used, then it may make a lot of sense.

All of this approach is actually based on the empathy, based on putting ourselves in the situation of subsistance farmers in Africa. Families like these who actually cannot access their farmland, they cannot fetch water, or it’s perilous to fetch water, it’s perilous to fetch firewood, because of the danger of exploding landmines.

And really, this brings us to the problem.

Most of these communities are at the bottom of the pyramid, living in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia. They are actually affected by undetected threats. And tuberculosis is one of those threats, landmines is another one. And these two particular threats, this organization I founded, Apopo, is working on.

Because we believe, that actually it is possible, if we utilize resources in our own environment, that we can come to solutions which are much more sustainable than what is often imposed from outside. And, let me go at once to how this system works.

Actually, here you see one of our trainers, he is in safe area, on the side of the road and there’s a landmine a bit here on the side, actually animal smells it and it wants to get there but it has to follow the search pattern, to systematically search the field without leaving any blind pockets behind.

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And you’ll see in the next row actually the animal starts scratching on the soil, I’m not sure there is sound but what you should hear now is this sound, which is a click sound and the animal actually comes back for the food reward which is banana or peanuts. Very simple, these animals work for peanuts.

So, why using rats. Well, first of all, these animals are endemic to Africa. They are giant African pouched rats and you find them all over Sub-Saharan Africa. They have more genetic material allocated to olfaction than any other mammal species. They don’t rely so much on audition or sight, they actually mostly get their perceptory input through smelling and it’s something they start immediately at birth.

This is what the animals actually look like when they’re 28 days old. Then they open the eyes and then we immediately wean them from the litter. We socialize them, we bring them in all kinds of environments, expose them to different sounds, different smells, different people.

They drive around in a car, they go with their trainers wherever and they learn that humans are friends. Really important, because, if the animals are well-trained, they can be very sociable, they can be very intelligent, they can be very reliable pets, they can be even very clean pets.

In the next phase, when they’re well-socialized, we actually start clicker training. We call this, this click sound, this is a simple metal clicker and we pair this click sound with food reinforcer. In this case you see mashed banana in a syringe but we also use pellets, we use all kinds of primary reinforcers, the foods.

And these animals love to perform repetitive tasks in return for a simple food reward. I think all of you have seen already a hamster, in a cage, that is happy by running around in that wheel for hours.

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And in a way, well, we should be grateful to the animal that they want to do this work, because it’s… landmine detection is a task that requires high concentration, most of the problem occurs in very hot areas, you have to wear a lot of protective gear, it is really a difficult, dangerous task and rats can help us enhance it a lot.

So back to the training. Once this click and foods, click and foods is associated with each other, we can start now shaping the behavior of the animal. And you can’t see it well from the picture, actually on this one you can actually.

There are three holes in the cage. The animal actually learns to put its hole in the…its nose in the hole for three seconds which is really long for a rat. And every time it does that, it gets again a click sound and a food reinforcer.

And under that hole we can put a target scent. In case of landmines, the target scent is explosives, in case of tuberculosis, they’re positive sputum samples. Gradually, we make it more difficult, the animals work in a harness, they learn to detect sources of explosives in the open and later on they detect real landmines in a minefield.

At the end, before we ship the animals to operational sites, the animals undergo an accreditation test. They, in two consecutive days, they have to cover eight boxes of 100 square meters each, and have to find all the mines in all of these boxes, which is really difficult.

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