SENDAI – Scientists are trying to bring a new breed of dog into battle to save survivors of future disasters: a dog strapped into a high-tech vest to make it function like a robot.
The combination of a dog’s acute sense of smell and the devices attached to the animal, including a camera and global positioning system, could help expedite search-and-rescue operations and save lives.
The Robo-Dog system was developed by a group of Japanese engineers led by Kazunori Ohno at Tohoku University and will be tested for good this year.
The system mounts a camera on a dog’s vest, which then wirelessly sends images to a computer or mobile device. The GPS and various other sensors enable the dog’s route to be displayed on a digital map.
“We thought it would be useful if we could record a search and rescue dog’s activity and visualize where the dog was looking and what view prompted the dog to respond,” said Ohno, 39.
Ohno began his research after working on the development of the remote-controlled caterpillar robot Quince in 2011, which was used to record radiation levels from reactor buildings at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.
The success demonstrated how effective robots can be in places that humans cannot enter. The next step was to find a way to locate victims who have no way of making their presence known.
“We often hear from rescue workers that there are cases where people are invisible in a large area but urgently need help,” said Ohno, associate professor at the university. “Dogs can find people with their strong sense of smell. While looking for a new way of searching, we came up with the idea of tagging dogs (and robotic technology), ”he said.
Ohno’s team started the Robo-Dog project in April 2011, shortly after the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated vast areas of northeastern Japan on March 11 this year and more than 18,000 people died or were not reported while a nuclear crisis was triggered.
The team, made up mostly of researchers from Tohoku University and based in disaster-hit Miyagi Prefecture, developed the dog vests after receiving support from government funding programs ImPACT TRC and CREST MI for technological innovations.
Rescue dogs are trained to bark to alert handlers of someone in trouble. When a dog finds a missing person, the location is marked in real time on a digital screen map.
The vest, which weighs approximately 1 kg, is designed for medium-sized dogs from approximately 20 kg to 25 kg. It is designed not to interfere with a rescue dog’s movements after a series of tests in collaboration with the Japan Rescue Dog Association.
“It was so difficult to attach the device to animals because we’ve never done this before,” Ohno said, adding that the initially heavier prototype was particularly problematic as dogs would refuse to buckle up just minutes after buckling to move.
A rescue dog named Gonta was recently able to successfully run simulations repeatedly and locate people who had been buried under a replicated damaged house or rubble for more than an hour while wearing the latest Robo-Dog system.
“With video broadcast from this system, we can check the situation in a place that people cannot go,” said Kazuo Hamano, 54, of the canine association at a training center in Fujimi, Saitama Prefecture. Hamano said this, in turn, should help rescue workers make a plan of what equipment to get to a location.
The Tokyo-based association participated in a rescue operation in tsunami-flooded areas in Miyagi during the 2011 disaster and in a major landslide in Hiroshima in August 2014.
Ohno’s team plans to loan the vest to the club later this year in the hope that their rescue dogs and handlers will get used to the equipment in preparation for future disasters.
He said he believes the system will help transmit rescue dog data effectively and accurately and prove how smart the animals can be.
The system could also help determine injury severity using video footage to prioritize disaster victims.
“Dogs can find people, but they cannot pass judgment on triage,” Ohno said, adding that video footage would help decision-making in critical situations. “I want this system to help find and save as many people as possible in times of disaster.”
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