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The Internet of Rats: Automating rat tracking for Apopo's HeroRats

Apopo.org is a wonderful organization.  They train rats to sniff out land mines in former conflict zones, thus preventing thousands of deaths or injuries.  Why rats?  They’re very trainable and have excellent senses of smell (high olfactory acuity).  And, they weigh less than 2 kilograms, so they won’t set off a land mine.  For more on these wonderful “HeroRats”, see this BBC video.

I got to know Bart Weetjens, the founder of Apopo, in 2017 and have been looking for a way to help him and Apopo.  Last year I gave my Product Management class at MIT a challenge:  could they help develop an app to support the rat wranglers at Apopo?  The current process is manual, time-consuming, and paper-intensive.  The rat handlers lay out the boundaries of the mine field then mark where the rat finds an explosive on a piece of graph paper.  The risk of mis-marking or of losing data is too high.  So Apopo’s CEO, Christophe Cox, asked my class to develop an app that would support the rat handlers in the field.

One team took on the challenge and did a nice job developing the specifications for a rat tracking app. But they graduated, went their separate directions, and weren’t able to complete a finished application.  Since then, I’ve been working off-and-on to complete the work.  I’ve chosen the technology (Ultra-wide band instead of Bluetooth or wifi), purchased the hardware, designed mounts and housings for the hardware, programmed a wireframe app, and hired a programmer.  I also designed a tag holder that fits around the rat’s harness, so that the rat can wear the electronic tracker comfortably.

This project is a wonderful opportunity to apply new tech to an old tech solution.  We’re basically creating an IoT (Internet of Things) application for rats.  If things go well, every rat will have their own URL and we can see from anywhere in the world where they are, how many landmines they’ve found, and how much land they’ve cleared.

Working with me on this is one of my former students– Gaby Barrera.  She’s a Second Lieutenant in the Army who’s currently on leave to get her Master’s Degree in Technology and Policy at MIT.  She’s very tech savvy, interested in applying technology to support social causes, and very smart.

On June 25, I head to Tanzania to test the tracking technology, refine the app design, get to know the rat trainers and handlers, and generally understand the life of both the rat and the rat handler.  More on the preparations for this and the trip itself to follow soon.

How to support Apopo:

How can you help this wonderful organization?  Adopt a rat!  See here for more details.

Posted by David Robertson
On June 12, 2018
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