Working dogs equipped with high-tech tools

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a suite of technologies that can be used to enhance communication between dogs and humans. 

‘We’ve developed a platform for computer-mediated communication between humans and dogs that opens the door to new avenues for interpreting dogs’ behavioural signals and sending them clear and unambiguous cues in return,’ said Dr. David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-lead author of a paper on the work. ‘We have a fully functional prototype, but we’ll be refining the design as we explore more and more applications for the platform.’

According to NC State, the platform is a harness that fits onto the dog, and which is equipped with a variety of technologies.

‘There are two types of communication technologies,’ said Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-lead author of a paper on the work. ‘One that allows us to communicate with the dogs, and one that allows them to communicate with us.’

‘Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and one of our challenges was to develop sensors that tell us about their behaviour by observing their posture remotely,’ Roberts said in a statement. ‘So we can determine when they’re sitting, standing, running, etc., even when they’re out of sight – a harness-mounted computer the size of a deck of cards transmits those data wirelessly.

‘At the same time, we’ve incorporated speakers and vibrating motors, called haptics, into the harness, which enable us to communicate with the dogs,’ said Roberts.

‘We developed software to collect, interpret and communicate those data, and to translate human requests into signals on the harness,’ said Rita Brugarolas, an NC State Ph.D. student and co-author of the paper.

The technology also includes physiological sensors that monitor things like heart rate and body temperature. The sensors not only track a dog’s physical well being, but can offer information on whether a dog is excited or stressed.

These technologies form the core of the platform, but it can be customised with additional devices depending on the specific application.

‘For example, for search and rescue, we’ve added environmental sensors that can detect hazards such as gas leaks, as well as a camera and microphone for collecting additional information,’ said Bozkurt.

‘We’re also very interested in addressing stress in working dogs, such as guide dogs for the blind,’ said Sean Mealin, an NC State Ph.D. student and co-author of the paper. ‘We’re reliant on the physiological and behavioural sensors to give us a picture of the dog’s mental and emotional state.

‘This can help handlers identify and mitigate stress for the dogs, improving the length and quality of a dog’s life,’ said Mealin. ‘It’s an important issue. Particularly because guide dogs are bred and trained not to display signs of stress in their behaviour.’

In addition to disaster response research, the research team has already done work that uses the platform to assist in dog training. They are now in the early stages of miniaturizing the technologies and improving the physiological sensors for use in animal shelters and hospitals.

The paper, ‘Towards Cyber-Enhanced Working Dogs for Search and Rescue,’ is published online in IEEE Intelligent Systems