Rats to the Rescue? Army May Use Rodents As IED and Landmine Detectors

By Susan Jones | July 30, 2012 | 11:15 AM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. Army says it is sponsoring research that may send trained rats into the field to save soldiers' lives.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory announced on Monday that it has tapped Barron Associates, a Virginia company, to develop and test a system for training rats to detect improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines.

"The automated system we're developing is designed to inexpensively train rats to detect buried explosives to solve an immediate Army need for safer and lower-cost mine removal," said Barron Associates' William Gressick, a senior research engineer who is managing the project.

The trained rats might also be used in civilian search-and-rescue operations.

"If we can demonstrate that rats can be trained inexpensively to be reliable detectors, then this method would not only lower costs for the Army but would also create new opportunities for using animals to detect anything from mines to humans buried in earthquake rubble," said Micheline Strand, chief of the Army Research Office's Life Sciences Division, which manages the program.

The Defense Department currently relies on dogs for explosives detection. Trained rats would not replace dogs, but they would expand the Army's detection capabilities.

"Training dogs is very expensive," Strand said. "If we can significantly reduce the cost of a trained animal, then we could provide more animals to protect soldiers."

She noted that rats, which can detect low levels of explosives, would be able to search smaller spaces than dogs can, and they are easier to transport.

The project is dubbed R.A.T.S., which stands for "Rugged Automated Training System."