14:12
TEDxRotterdam 2010

Bart Weetjens: How I taught rats to sniff out land mines

Filmed:

At TEDxRotterdam, Bart Weetjens talks about his extraordinary project: training rats to sniff out land mines. He shows clips of his "hero rats" in action, and previews his work's next phase: teaching them to turn up tuberculosis in the lab.

- Product developer
The founder of Apopo, Bart Weet­jens, is train­ing rats to detect landmine explosives in minute amounts. Full bio

I'm here today to share with you
00:16
an extraordinary journey --
00:18
extraordinarily rewarding journey, actually --
00:20
which brought me into
00:23
training rats
00:25
to save human lives
00:27
by detecting landmines
00:29
and tuberculosis.
00:31
As a child, I had two passions.
00:33
One was a passion for rodents.
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I had all kinds of rats,
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mice, hamsters,
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gerbils, squirrels.
00:43
You name it, I bred it, and I sold them to pet shops.
00:45
(Laughter)
00:48
I also had a passion for Africa.
00:50
Growing up in a multicultural environment,
00:53
we had African students in the house,
00:55
and I learned about their stories,
00:57
so different backgrounds,
00:59
dependency on imported know-how,
01:01
goods, services,
01:04
exuberant cultural diversity.
01:06
Africa was truly fascinating for me.
01:09
I became an industrial engineer,
01:11
engineer in product development,
01:13
and I focused on appropriate detection technologies,
01:15
actually the first appropriate technologies
01:18
for developing countries.
01:20
I started working in the industry,
01:23
but I wasn't really happy to contribute
01:25
to a material consumer society
01:27
in a linear, extracting
01:30
and manufacturing mode.
01:33
I quit my job to focus on the real world problem:
01:35
landmines.
01:37
We're talking '95 now.
01:40
Princess Diana is announcing on TV
01:43
that landmines form a structural barrier
01:46
to any development, which is really true.
01:48
As long as these devices are there,
01:51
or there is suspicion of landmines,
01:53
you can't really enter into the land.
01:55
Actually, there was an appeal worldwide
01:57
for new detectors
01:59
sustainable in the environments
02:02
where they're needed to produce,
02:04
which is mainly in the developing world.
02:06
We chose rats.
02:08
Why would you choose rats?
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Because, aren't they vermin?
02:12
Well, actually rats are,
02:14
in contrary to what most people think about them,
02:16
rats are highly sociable creatures.
02:18
And actually, our product -- what you see here.
02:22
There's a target somewhere here.
02:25
You see an operator, a trained African
02:27
with his rats in front
02:29
who actually are left and right.
02:31
There, the animal finds a mine.
02:33
It scratches on the soil.
02:35
And the animal comes back for a food reward.
02:37
Very, very simple.
02:40
Very sustainable in this environment.
02:42
Here, the animal gets its food reward.
02:45
And that's how it works.
02:48
Very, very simple.
02:50
Now why would you use rats?
02:52
Rats have been used since the '50s last century,
02:54
in all kinds of experiments.
02:56
Rats have more genetic material
02:59
allocated to olfaction
03:02
than any other mammal species.
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They're extremely sensitive to smell.
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Moreover, they have the mechanisms to map all these smells
03:09
and to communicate about it.
03:12
Now how do we communicate with rats?
03:15
Well don't talk rat,
03:17
but we have a clicker,
03:20
a standard method for animal training,
03:22
which you see there.
03:24
A clicker, which makes a particular sound
03:26
with which you can reinforce particular behaviors.
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First of all, we associate the click sound with a food reward,
03:32
which is smashed banana and peanuts together in a syringe.
03:35
Once the animal knows click, food,
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click, food, click, food --
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so click is food --
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we bring it in a cage with a hole,
03:45
and actually the animal learns
03:47
to stick the nose in the hole
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under which a target scent is placed,
03:51
and to do that for five seconds --
03:53
five seconds, which is long for a rat.
03:55
Once the animal knows this, we make the task a bit more difficult.
03:57
It learns how to find the target smell
04:00
in a cage with several holes, up to 10 holes.
04:03
Then the animal learns
04:06
to walk on a leash in the open
04:08
and find targets.
04:10
In the next step, animals learn
04:12
to find real mines in real minefields.
04:15
They are tested and accredited
04:17
according to International Mine Action Standards,
04:20
just like dogs have to pass a test.
04:22
This consists of 400 square meters.
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There's a number of mines
04:27
placed blindly,
04:30
and the team of trainer and their rat
04:32
have to find all the targets.
04:35
If the animal does that, it gets a license
04:39
as an accredited animal
04:42
to be operational in the field --
04:44
just like dogs, by the way.
04:46
Maybe one slight difference:
04:48
we can train rats at a fifth of the price
04:50
of training the mining dog.
04:53
This is our team in Mozambique:
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one Tanzanian trainer,
04:57
who transfers the skills
04:59
to these three Mozambican fellows.
05:01
And you should see the pride in the eyes of these people.
05:03
They have a skill,
05:06
which makes them much less dependent
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on foreign aid.
05:10
Moreover, this small team
05:12
together with, of course, you need the heavy vehicles
05:15
and the manual de-miners to follow-up.
05:18
But with this small investment in a rat capacity,
05:21
we have demonstrated in Mozambique
05:24
that we can reduce the cost-price per square meter
05:27
up to 60 percent
05:30
of what is currently normal --
05:32
two dollars per square meter, we do it at $1.18,
05:34
and we can still bring that price down.
05:36
Question of scale.
05:38
If you can bring in more rats,
05:40
we can actually make the output even bigger.
05:42
We have a demonstration site in Mozambique.
05:44
Eleven African governments
05:47
have seen that they can become less dependent
05:50
by using this technology.
05:53
They have signed the pact for peace
05:55
and treaty in the Great Lakes region,
05:57
and they endorse hero rats
06:00
to clear their common borders of landmines.
06:03
But let me bring you to a very different problem.
06:06
And there's about 6,000 people last year
06:09
that walked on a landmine,
06:11
but worldwide last year,
06:13
almost 1.9 million died from tuberculosis
06:15
as a first cause of infection.
06:17
Especially in Africa
06:21
where T.B. and HIV are strongly linked,
06:23
there is a huge common problem.
06:26
Microscopy, the standard WHO procedure,
06:31
reaches from 40 to 60 percent reliability.
06:34
In Tanzania -- the numbers don't lie --
06:38
45 percent of people -- T.B. patients --
06:41
get diagnosed with T.B. before they die.
06:44
It means that, if you have T.B.,
06:48
you have more chance that you won't be detected,
06:51
but will just die from T.B. secondary infections and so on.
06:53
And if, however,
07:00
you are detected very early, diagnosed early,
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treatment can start,
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and even in HIV-positives, it makes sense.
07:06
You can actually cure T.B.,
07:09
even in HIV-positives.
07:11
So in our common language, Dutch,
07:14
the name for T.B.
07:17
is "tering,"
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which, etymologically,
07:21
refers to the smell of tar.
07:23
Already the old Chinese
07:26
and the Greek, Hippocrates,
07:28
have actually published,
07:31
documented, that T.B. can be diagnosed
07:33
based on the volatiles
07:36
exuding from patients.
07:38
So what we did is we collected some samples --
07:41
just as a way of testing --
07:43
from hospitals,
07:45
trained rats on them
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and see if this works,
07:50
and wonder, well,
07:52
we can reach 89 percent sensitivity,
07:54
86 percent specificity
07:56
using multiple rats in a row.
07:58
This is how it works,
08:00
and really, this is a generic technology.
08:03
We're talking now explosives, tuberculosis,
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but can you imagine,
08:09
you can actually put anything under there.
08:11
So how does it work?
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You have a cassette with 10 samples.
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You put these 10 samples at once in the cage.
08:17
An animal only needs two hundredths of a second
08:20
to discriminate the scent, so it goes extremely fast.
08:22
Here it's already at the third sample.
08:25
This is a positive sample.
08:28
It gets a click sound and comes for the food reward.
08:32
And by doing so, very fast,
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we can have like a second-line opinion
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to see which patients are positive,
08:42
which are negative.
08:44
Just as an indication,
08:47
whereas a microscopist can process
08:49
40 samples in a day,
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a rat can process
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the same amount of samples
08:55
in seven minutes only.
08:57
A cage like this --
08:59
(Applause)
09:01
A cage like this -- provided that you have rats,
09:06
and we have now currently
09:09
25 tuberculosis rats --
09:11
a cage like this, operating throughout the day,
09:13
can process 1,680 samples.
09:16
Can you imagine the potential offspring applications --
09:21
environmental detection
09:24
of pollutants in soils,
09:26
customs applications,
09:28
detection of illicit goods in containers and so on.
09:30
But let's stick first to tuberculosis.
09:34
I just want to briefly highlight,
09:36
the blue rods
09:38
are the scores of microscopy only
09:40
at the five clinics in Dar es Salaam
09:42
on a population of 500,000 people,
09:45
where 15,000 reported to get a test done.
09:47
Microscopy for 1,800 patients.
09:50
And by just presenting the samples once more to the rats
09:53
and looping those results back,
09:57
we were able to increase case detection rates
10:00
by over 30 percent.
10:02
Throughout last year,
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we've been -- depending on which intervals you take --
10:06
we've been consistently
10:08
increasing case detection rates
10:10
in five hospitals in Dar es Salaam
10:12
between 30 and 40 percent.
10:14
So this is really considerable.
10:17
Knowing that a missed patient by microscopy
10:19
infects up to 15 people,
10:21
healthy people, per year,
10:23
you can be sure
10:25
that we have saved lots of lives.
10:27
At least our hero rats have saved lots of lives.
10:29
The way forward for us
10:32
is now to standardize this technology.
10:34
And there are simple things
10:36
like, for instance, we have a small laser in the sniffer hole
10:38
where the animal has to stick for five seconds.
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So, to standardize this.
10:44
Also, to standardize the pellets,
10:46
the food rewards,
10:48
and to semi-automate this
10:50
in order to replicate this on a much larger scale
10:52
and affect the lives of many more people.
10:55
To conclude, there are also other applications at the horizon.
10:58
Here is a first prototype
11:01
of our camera rat,
11:03
which is a rat with a rat backpack
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with a camera that can go under rubble
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to detect for victims
11:09
after earthquake and so on.
11:11
This is in a prototype stage.
11:13
We don't have a working system here yet.
11:15
To conclude, I would actually like to say,
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you may think this is about rats, these projects,
11:21
but in the end it is about people.
11:23
It is about empowering vulnerable communities
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to tackle difficult, expensive
11:27
and dangerous humanitarian detection tasks,
11:30
and doing that with a local resource,
11:33
plenty available.
11:36
So something completely different
11:38
is to keep on challenging your perception
11:41
about the resources surrounding you,
11:44
whether they are environmental,
11:47
technological, animal, or human.
11:50
And to respectfully harmonize with them
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in order to foster a sustainable work.
11:58
Thank you very much.
12:01
(Applause)
12:03

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About the Speaker:

Bart Weetjens - Product developer
The founder of Apopo, Bart Weet­jens, is train­ing rats to detect landmine explosives in minute amounts.

Why you should listen

Dutch product designer Bart Weetjens works with locals in Morogoro, Tanzania, to trains rats to do something astonishing: sniff out land mines. (The African giant pouched rat, the species used in the project, is wide­spread in the region.) The rats that pass the train­ing -- and the same rigorous testing applied to land mine-sniffing canines -- become what Weetjens calls "HeroRATS."

Weet­jens and Apopo.org are now applying a similar approach to other fields, training rats to diagnose tuber­cu­lo­sis in hospitals.

More profile about the speaker
Bart Weetjens | Speaker | TED.com