Dogs, technology and the future of disaster response

May 6, 2014
Credit: Alper Bozkurt

Imagine a team of humans, dogs, robots and drones swooping onto the scene in the aftermath of a disaster and working together to find and rescue anyone trapped in collapsed buildings. That's the goal of a team of researchers from around the United States working on what they call the Smart Emergency Response System (SERS).

The team is part of the Smart America Challenge, which kicked off in late 2013 to highlight state-of-the-art, practical innovations stemming from U.S. research. The SERS team is one of more than 20 research groups presenting projects as part of the challenge.

The SERS project's goal is to use cyber-physical systems to share information and coordinate emergency and disaster response and recovery. These systems are designed to work in real-time via a variety of wireless network technologies. In addition to NC State, the SERS team includes researchers from MathWorks, the University of Washington, MIT, BluHaptics, National Instruments, the University of North Texas, Boeing and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

The NC State researchers, Alper Bozkurt and David Roberts, are focused on a very specific aspect of the SERS equation: .

Roberts and Bozkurt have developed a high-tech harness equipped with sensors and other devices that will both make the dogs more effective at collecting information and incorporate the dogs into the larger network of a coordinated .

"We're using a range of technologies to modify off-the-shelf harnesses," Bozkurt says. "And of course, all of the tech is supplemented by training for the dogs and their handlers."

Credit: Alper Bozkurt

"We're not trying to replace dog handlers – we're trying to open the door to new possibilities," says Roberts, who is also an experienced amateur dog trainer.

The SERS dog harnesses include three kinds of technologies: environmental monitoring, dog monitoring and active communication.

The dogs will be equipped with passive environmental monitoring devices – such as microphones, cameras and gas sensors – that allow the dogs to retrieve and transmit data from the field in real time.

"We're developing a platform for sensors that is designed to be plug-and-play, allowing emergency responders to further customize the harness," Bozkurt says. "For example, if there's the possibility of a natural gas leak, you could attach a natural gas sensor. Or if there's the possibility of radiation, you could attach a Geiger counter." Using wireless communications, the sensors can be monitored remotely at a command center or by dog handlers on a handheld device nearby.

The harness also includes new sensors developed by Bozkurt and Roberts that monitor a dog's behavior and physiology, such as heart rate. These sensors will allow both dog handlers and the command center to remotely track a dog's well-being and to determine if the animal has picked up a scent or found a specific object or area of interest.

The active communication technologies on the harness will allow handlers to relay commands to a dog remotely. Bozkurt and Roberts have incorporated audio communication, via speakers, into the vest. However, they think the more reliable remote communication will come via "tactile inputs" – they're training dogs to respond to gentle "nudges" that come from within the electronic harness itself.

"I want to be clear that these are not aversive punishments, but slight, tactile nudges from motors in the vest – like a vibrating cell phone. We're using exclusively reward-based training techniques," Roberts says.

Bozkurt, Roberts and the rest of the SERS team will be participating in the Smart America Challenge event in Washington, D.C., this summer.

"After that, we plan to continue to engage emergency response personnel to identify and overcome any obstacles to putting these smart-recovery techniques to work in the field," Roberts says.

Explore further: Researchers use video game tech to steer roaches on autopilot (w/ Video)

More information:

Related Stories

Canine remote control

September 3, 2013

Man's best friend can get a bit tiresome, all that rolling over, shaking paws, long walks and eating every crumb of food off the floor. But, what if there were a way to command your dog with a remote control, or even via ...

Dogs know a left-sided wag from a right

October 31, 2013

You might think a wagging tail is a wagging tail, but for dogs there is more to it than that. Dogs recognize and respond differently when their fellow canines wag to the right than they do when they wag to the left. The findings ...

Recommended for you

Roboticists learn to teach robots from babies

December 1, 2015

Babies learn about the world by exploring how their bodies move in space, grabbing toys, pushing things off tables and by watching and imitating what adults are doing.

Xbox gaming technology may improve X-ray precision

December 1, 2015

With the aim of producing high-quality X-rays with minimal radiation exposure, particularly in children, researchers have developed a new approach to imaging patients. Surprisingly, the new technology isn't a high-tech, high-dollar ...

Making 3-D imaging 1,000 times better

December 1, 2015

MIT researchers have shown that by exploiting the polarization of light—the physical phenomenon behind polarized sunglasses and most 3-D movie systems—they can increase the resolution of conventional 3-D imaging devices ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.