Who We Are
APOPO is a non-profit organization with Belgian roots. For 25 years we have tackled landmines or tuberculosis around the world and we are a global leader in training scent detection animals. Since its humble beginnings, APOPO has responded to the devastating impact of landmines on people living in post-conflict areas by developing a fast, simple, and cost-efficient mine clearance technology. Our methods are easily applied to national mine action programs in low-income countries. Through our unique method of using trained African giant pouched rats, APOPO has been highly effective in detecting landmines, which has allowed us to expand our efforts into other fields, such as tuberculosis (TB) control, and to train Technical Survey Dogs for landmine clearance activities.

As a research organization, APOPO remains committed to staying at the forefront 
of developing new humanitarian and environmental applications. We provide low-tech, cost-efficient solutions to pressing humanitarian challenges. APOPO’s innovative scent detection technology has huge potential to relieve human suffering and promote development when deployed in the fight against tuberculosis and landmines, along with other applications that are under development. 
The Search and Rescue project was developed precisely from APOPO’s quest to find new solutions to global problems.


Search and Rescue Project

Natural disasters have devastating effects on human lives, with earthquakes and typhoons ranking among the most catastrophic. S
adly, 2022 and 2023 brought their share of natural disasters. Although Search and Rescue teams are expertly trained to quickly locate where survivors are trapped following these disasters, their efforts are impeded by the technologies available to support their efforts. These tools are limited in their ability to 1) penetrate the debris, 2) navigate within this complex environment, and 3) strategically search for survivors. Because of their compact size, agility, and exceptional sense of smell, our HeroRATs could uniquely overcome these challenges. To do so they need to be equipped with technology to map their location, remotely signal when they’ve found a survivor, and provide real-time communication with the victim. 

The Search and Rescue project builds on previous APOPO research (from 2015) demonstrating our rats can be trained to search for humans by using facilities built in 2021 to simulate a collapsed building. In 2022 and 2023, our rats learned to navigate this environment to locate and indicate a “trapped” human and return to where they had been released. This was achieved regardless of whether the human was familiar to the rat, was hidden from view from either above or below debris (by introducing levels to mimic floors of a collapsed structure), or if distracting sounds (such as sirens, jackhammers, and dogs barking) were played from a speaker while the rat was searching. 

Because of their size and agility, our rats could uniquely complement existing search & rescue efforts. This project is therefore aimed at training rats to locate humans while outfitted with a technology-enabled backpack to allow real-time wireless audio-visual communication from within each debris site.
The multifunctional backpack was initially designed by a team of engineers at Eindhoven University of Technology. This initial design included a video camera, microphone, a speaker for two-way communication, and a device for tracking where the rat is located. 


Initial training has provided very promising results:

Early Training (complete): 
▪ Rats were trained to wear a vest equipped with a ball attached to a microswitch (backpack training prototype) 
▪ Rats have successfully learned a complex behavioral sequence:
1. Locate a target human within a search area
2. Trigger the microswitch by pulling the ball attached to their vest to remotely communicate to their handler when the victim is found 
3. Return to the release point to receive a food reward when the handler activates a beeper signal  

Continued Training: 
▪ Current training is focused on optimizing target detection amongst increasingly complex search scenarios. This includes:
1. Identifying target humans who are partially and fully concealed by debris (completed)
2. Searching amongst distracting stimuli, such as food and common household items (ongoing)
3. Navigating increasingly complex debris sites (upcoming) 



Ongoing Efforts and Next Steps:

With the valuable lessons learned by participating in a search and rescue training exercise on location with our project partner, GEA (a major Turkish Search and Rescue organization) these promising preliminary results provide a firm foundation for continued training. APOPO is currently working with Eindhoven University of Technology and Private Partners for the next phase and development of the backpack and to have a new prototype ready in early 2024 for operational trials. 

APOPO remains committed to staying at the forefront of developing new humanitarian and environmental applications. Through ongoing collaborations and continued support from partners, donors, and local authorities, APOPO aims to establish RescueRATs in natural disaster response teams, increasing the impact of Search and Rescue efforts worldwide. Help us continue to save lives around the world. Please consider supporting us today.