I must admit that science fiction and fantasy movies and books are some of my "guilty pleasures". When it comes to that genre I have a particular fondness for robots and cyborgs (a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, part biological and part mechanical), especially if these have a canine form. Thus since 1977 I have often enjoyed the character K-9, the boxy robotic dog that frequently appears in the long-running British science fiction television series Dr. Who. I am also fond of Goddard from the Jimmy Neutron movie and TV series who is clearly more clever than his owner. I have even been fascinated by more evil robotic dogs such as AMEE who nearly wipes out Val Kilmer's entire crew in the 2000 film Red Planet, or the Mechanical Hunter Dogs in Fahrenheit 451. Nonetheless, except for children's toys, I never expected to live to see serious functioning canine robots or cyborgs. However in a paper recently accepted for publication in IEEE Intelligent Systems*, a research team from North Carolina State University seems to be taking a big step toward a canine cyborg, or at least toward what they call a Cybernetic–Enhanced Working Dog (CEWD).
The cyber enhanced dog project was conceptualized by David Roberts and Alper Bozkurt who are computer and engineering specialists, and the team is augmented by a clinical professor of veterinary behavior, Barbara Sherman. While this might sound like something from "Terminator," the dogs aren't getting super-strength, nor will they be implanted with a bark that has an Austrian accent reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Actually the dogs wear a harness equipped with a computer which is about the size of a deck of cards. This device contains accelerometers and gyroscopes to track movement, and to send feedback as to what the dog is doing.
According to Roberts “Dogs communicate primarily through body language, and one of our challenges was to develop sensors that tell us about their behavior by observing their posture remotely, so we can determine when they’re sitting, standing, running, etc., even when they’re out of sight. At the same time, we’ve incorporated speakers and vibrating motors, called haptics, into the harness, which enable us to communicate with the dogs.” This is all basically done wirelessly through something like a smart phone app.
Since the original purpose of the cybernetic enhancement is to help out in search and rescue operations, all of the data from the dog is fed into computer algorithms that translate movements, postures, and physiological signs into a picture what the dog is doing and how the animal is feeling. For example if a dog has its head lowered and its heart rate is high that could tell the handler that the dog is stressed. Since the technology is going both ways the dog handler could respond to the situation by using their smart phones to give the dogs pre-recorded verbal instructions through the attached speakers or alternatively communication might involve using the eight motors installed in the harness to send hundreds of different combinations of vibrations. With the right training each of these combinations could be a command. As of now some test dogs have be trained to move in seven different directions based on the patterns of vibrations that they receive, thus the dog can be precisely guided from a distance, much like one might guide a remotely controlled model plane or model car.
These technologies form the core of the cyber-enhanced dog platform, but it can be customized with additional devices depending on the specific application. According to Bozkurt, “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.” Alternatively the dog can wear a smaller array of sensors and work cooperatively with other completely robotic units with better communication capabilities. These units would follow the signals that the dog was broadcasting so that it was always nearby—a sort of mechanical "sidekick".
In addition to disaster response capabilities, the research team has already done work that uses the platform to assist in dog training. In this case it seems that the dispensing of rewards would rely upon a human, or perhaps be automatically dispensed by the dog's mobile robotic sidekick.
As you can see from the photos, the current prototype is quite large, so the team is now in the early stages of miniaturizing the technologies and improving the physiological sensors. After that I believe that the team will need to design a dog-sized T-shirt that reads "I may be a prototype cyborg but I am still loveable!"
Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome
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* Data from: Alper Bozkurt, David L. Roberts, Barbara L. Sherman, Rita Brugarolas, Sean Mealin, John Majikes, Pu Yang, and Robert Loftin (2014). Towards Cyber-Enhanced Working Dogs for Search and Rescue. IEEE Intelligent Systems, DOI: 10.1109/MIS.2014.77