Meet Diesel, a cute dog and organic robot

The future of dog training may be computer assisted

WASHINGTON -- Diesel, a Labrador Retriever, appears to live in a perpetual state of glee. He is happy around people, loves attention and is unbothered by the electronics-packed vest he is wearing.

The vest includes a microphone, camera, speakers, and motors that send vibrations, similar to that of a smartphone, to various parts of the dog's body. There's also an array of sensors that measure the dog's physiology: heart, respiration rates and muscle tension. The vest is also equipped with sensors that can detect gasses and radiation, and it has GPS and WiFi .

Diesel belongs to David Roberts, an assistant computer science professor at North Carolina State University. Diesel likes to hunt ducks, but the vest that Roberts and fellow assistant computer science professor Alper Bozkurt developed may change how dogs are trained and used in important tasks, such as search and rescue missions.

The physiological sensors tell of the dog's emotional state and health. The environmental sensors relay information about any nearby hazards. Its handlers communicate with speakers that use tones and distributed vibration motors. The dog is trained to recognize a beep or vibration as a command.

"We call it cyber-enabled dogs," said Bozkurt. In search and rescue work, handlers now maintain line-of-sight with their dogs to relay commands. But with this the vest, a dog can roam and the handlers can use the sensors to track the dog's health and whether he is near any hazards.

The training is entirely reward-based and nothing adverse is used, said Roberts.

"There is nothing painful to the dog in anything that we're doing here - it's all positive, it's all a game, it's all fun," said Roberts.

Diesel was at Wednesday's SmartAmerica conference, an event organized by the White House to look at how Internet of Things technologies can change service delivery.

Diesel was happily mingling with attendees and showing off his vest. The "Cyber-Physical Search and Rescue Dog" is part of larger response system being developed that includes the use of drones for creating wireless networks, and robots to assistrescue crews that include tele-operated robots.

"Computers can take a lot of the human error out of the process of training and communicating with dogs," said Roberts. The system can help people understand their dog's behavior and emotional state, he said.

Millions of dogs are euthanized each year because people don't understand or misinterpret their dog's behavior signals, and they end up making behavioral problems worse by not training the dog correctly, said Roberts.

Some years ago, Roberts began creating mathematical models of dog behavior and realized there was profound connection between the modeling and dog behavior. Roberts connected with Bozkurt, who has worked on miniaturizing biomedical devices down the insect scale. He has a remote cockroach project, where cockroaches can be steered in search and rescue sites, in places dogs can't reach, to search for sound signals.

Modeling behavior of dogs is all about the timing of reward delivery, and by measuring the dog's physiology and reinforcing behavior with well-timed treats, a dog's training can be more effective, said Roberts.

When the dog performs a task that calls for a reward, the speaker on the vest will make a click noise and a treat will be dispensed. It's possible to include a treat dispenser with the vest and reward the dog as he goes along on his search and rescues assignment.

Roberts believes that that computer assisted technologies illustrated by the use of vest can be used to train dogs for any kind of activity.

Reducing the number of dogs that are euthanized through improved training technology, "was one of our major motivations," said Bozkurt.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

See more by Patrick Thibodeau on Computerworld.com.

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