Bucknell professors help rats go high-tech to root out land mines

English: Four young pet rats.

The team has devised a system to train rats to recognize and respond to the explosives

Since the invention of land mines some seven centuries ago, activists, researchers and government officials have tried to root out the indiscriminant and deadly weapons with everything from metal detectors and robots to dogs, bees and rats.

The methods have, however, proved dangerous, labor-intensive and time-consuming.

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, using materials that can be delivered anywhere with instructions that anyone can 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,” said Kevin Myers, an associate professor of psychology who studies learning, memory and motivation as it relates to appetite and food preferences in rats.

Myers and Joe Tranquillo, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, are working with Coherent Technical Services Inc. (CTSI). The U.S. Army Research Office has awarded the company and Bucknell $100,000 for Phase I of the project. Such contracts are designated for small businesses and academic research partnerships that address real problems with marketable technology.

Land mines are especially dangerous because they are often buried then lay concealed for years. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines describes land mines as indiscriminate weapons that kill and injure thousands of people each year, instilling fear and serving as a barrier to development.

The project is an “innovative yet low-tech solution” to address a problem in developing areas of the world, Myers said. The big advantage to training rats rather than larger animals is that the rats are small and light and do not trip the land mines, which can remain dangerous for years after they are installed.

“Some people think we are sending off rats to blow up mines, and that’s absolutely not the case,” Myers said.

In his lab at Bucknell, Myers is training rats to respond to the scent of land mines by doing a simple task: turning in circles.

“The process is similar to how bomb-sniffing dogs are trained,” he said. “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.”

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The project is a combination of psychology, animal behavior and engineering, Myers said.

Read more . . .

via Digital Journal

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