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Rats with GPS backpacks prepare to sniff out landmines

US: A team of scientists at Bucknell University, US, developed a novel system for detecting landmines by training rats equipped with GPS and wireless rucksacks to sniff out explosives and map them for destruction. They trained rats to identify the chemicals that seep into the ground from land mines and to circle around them. The rats wear palm-sized backpacks which contain GPS and a wireless transmitter, as well as an electronic reward system as an incentive.

The movement of the animals is tracked on a laptop, which uses an icon-based interface specially designed for people who may have little experience with computers. It maps out potential land mines, will produce a map for the site’s clearance, and identify safe routes through the area.

Kevin Myers, associate professor of psychology at Bucknell University, and his team trained rats to associate a vibration in the backpack with a food reward for good behavior, until the rat learns to seek out the vibration even after tidbits stopped coming. They are then trained to associate the vibration with finding and moving around the odor of explosive chemicals in the soil.

The technique to train in this way uses legendary American behaviorist B.F Skinner’s ideas about applying positive and negative reinforcement to train animal subjects. During WWII, Skinner developed a pigeon-guided missile system, with the bird trained to peck at the target, aiming a Pelican guided bomb at German shipping. But the project was dropped, a decision that Winston Churchill’s chief scientific advisor described as regrettable.

Now the team at Bucknell University, with defense contractor Coherent Technical Services, has received a USD 100,000 contract to develop their system into a ruggedised unit that can be dropped from an aircraft at remote locations. This would contain everything needed to train the rats and use them to identify possible landmines that may never have been cleared. If this is successful, the next phase will be a USD 750,000 contract to bring the entire system to deployment stage and to start testing it.

Source: The Register