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Rats and Robots Sniff Out Landmines

By Sheila Oviedo | October 22, 2008

Landmine Museum in Cambodia. Photo by
James Stewart (CC).

A small-but-growing number of private humanitarian efforts are helping to address the global problem of landmines, which inflict 15,000 to 20,000 casualties per year.

In Sri Lanka, a group of scientists and engineers has developed a low-cost robot to detect unexploded landmines in areas covered with vegetation. The Moratuwa University Robot for Anti-Landmine Intelligence (MURALI) is an eight-legged, single-motor robot that moves like an iguana over rough terrain.

"Our dream is to help the civilians affected by the civil war in Sri Lanka to resettle in their original farmlands as soon as possible," writes Asela Manathunga, one of MURALI's developers.

An estimated 3.5 million landmines have been discovered in Sri Lanka's conflict-affected areas in the north and northeast regions since the 1980s. In addition to causing deaths and injuries, landmines deprive civilians of their homes and means of livelihood.

A MURALI robot can "coordinate and lead" a group of robots in a given area. When the leader detects a landmine, it signals the others on how to support the removal effort. Tests have shown that MURALI minimizes the false alarm rate in mine detection, which accelerates demining and allows civilians to more quickly repopulate affected areas.

Meanwhile, the Antwerp-based organization Apopo has been training rats to detect unexploded landmines and the technique has gradually gained a following in post-conflict African countries. At least 30 HeroRats are now working to detect landmines in Mozambique, and teams will be deployed in Sudan, Uganda, and other countries.

HeroRats was conceived by Bart Weetjens, a Belgian engineer who embarked on the project following a trip to Africa in the early 1990s. While in Angola and Mozambique, he saw that landmine detection operations were hampered by the health problems of dogs, as well as the chronic lack of funds to purchase the latest demining technology and train local teams.

Weetjen's project has also inspired the use of this method in Colombia and Croatia. Eighteen HeroRats teams are fully accredited according to the International Mine Action Standards, and more rats are being trained for accreditation.

HeroRats are drawn from the ranks of the African giant pouched rat, common in sub-Saharan Africa and considered ideal for the program due to its long lifespan and light weight. Training begins when the rats are five weeks old. Weetjens notes that the best HeroRat "is not too nervous" and has "an extremely keen sense of smell."

The use of rats for mine detection was not always widely accepted. In fact, some of Weetjen's colleagues openly scoffed at the idea. But training a HeroRat costs between $3,000 and $5,000. By contrast, the cost of training a mine-detecting dog can reach $40,000 or more. Moreover, dogs and people tend to grow attached to one another and landmine detection is dangerous work. The bonds between rats and humans are looser.

Weetjens scoured universities for funding before a one-year grant from the Belgian government enabled the establishment of a breeding center for the African giant rat in 1998. Two years later, the facility relocated to the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania. Funding from groups such as Ashoka and Skoll Foundation has helped sustain the project.

In recent years, the HeroRats have also proven useful in the detection of tuberculosis. They are capable of evaluating as many as 40 human sputum samples in 10 minutes to identify the presence of infection. In the future, HeroRats may also be trained for search operations and the detection of contraband.


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