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Comm tech helps humans understand dogs better

03 Nov 2014

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A team of researchers from North Carolina State University has developed a suite of technologies that according to them can be used to improve communication between dogs and humans. They stated that the platform has applications in everything from search and rescue to service dogs to training our pets.

"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 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."

The platform itself is a harness that fits comfortably onto the dog, and which is equipped with a variety of technologies.

David Roberts

David Roberts with one of his research associates. Photo credit: North Carolina State University.

"There are two types of communication technologies," noted 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. "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," Roberts added.

"We developed software to collect, interpret and communicate those data, and to translate human requests into signals on the harness," indicated 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 a dog's emotional state, such as whether it 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," Bozkurt noted.

"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 behavioral 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," Mealin continued. "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 done work that uses the platform to assist in dog training. They are now in the early stages of miniaturising the technologies and improving the physiological sensors for use in animal shelters and hospitals.

"This platform is an amazing tool, and we're excited about using it to improve the bond between dogs and their humans," said Barbara Sherman, a clinical professor of animal behavior at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the paper.

The paper, "Towards Cyber-Enhanced Working Dogs for Search and Rescue," is published online in IEEE Intelligent Systems. The paper was co-authored by NC State Ph.D. students John Majikes and Robert Loftin, and by former NC State Ph.D. student Pu Yang. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation under Cyber Physical System Program grant number 1329738.




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