As K9 cops, search and rescue teams, and drug enforcement agents know, a well-trained dog is an incredibly useful tool—not to mention an excellent furry companion. But there are some situations where that relationship breaks down, like in loud settings or when a dog has to travel into an area where it can’t see or hear its handler. Now, a Japanese lab has come up with a new vest that allows dog handlers to control their puppers via “remote control.”
In reality, the vest guides the dogs via flashlights, reports Andrew Liszewski at Gizmodo. In a recently posted video, researchers from Tohoku University demonstrate the gadget. Essentially, the dog wears a vest with flashlights on either side. The lights can be aimed from afar, creating bright spots on the ground. The dog is then able to follow the lights around obstacles, which, in the cast of the lab demonstration, is a series of folding tables.
Liszewski reports that if the system is used alongside a dog-mounted camera or with drones, the dog handler could guide their pooch as they search disaster wreckage or the inside collapsed or inaccessible buildings.
This is not the first time roboticist Kazunori Ohno and his team at Tohoku University have upgraded search and rescue (SAR) dogs. (No, we’re not talking about robotic dogs, like Sony’s Aibo.) Mai Iida at The Japan Times reports that Ohno began working on a project called the Robo-Dog system in 2011, after helping with on the remote-controlled robotic crawlers used during the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
While the robotic crawler was a great way to look inside the damaged plant, Ohno realized that in many similar disaster scenarios there are people trapped inside but unable to communicate or make their presence known. In that case, a dog and its ability to sniff out victims is irreplaceable.
“We often hear from rescuers that there are cases where people are invisible in a vast area but in need of urgent help,” says Ohno. “Dogs can find people with their strong olfactory sense. When exploring a new way to search, we came up with the idea of forming a tag team with dogs (and robotic technology).”
That led to the development of a special cyber suit for rescue dogs two years ago, that at the time only included GPS, motion tracking sensors and cameras, so rescuers could keep track of their dogs using a phone or iPad as the pooches entered a search area. The equipment is light enough that the dogs can wear the vest for over an hour without getting fatigued.
In 2016, Agence France Presse reported the system was successfully tested with Robo-Dog equipped SAR animals finding survivors in a mock earthquake drill, and the suit was then made available for SAR teams in Japan. The addition of the dog-directing spotlights, if and when they are perfected, will make the system even more useful.
Regardless, any hard-working, high-tech hound is a very, very good doggo.