Imagine communicating with your dog through a computer, flashing signals back and forth, human and dog talking to each other.
Such communication is being developed by three faculty members at N.C. State, working with a million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation.
The lead researcher, David Roberts, an assistant professor of computer science, is a serious sportsman, running his yellow lab Diesel in hunt tests. He sees a “definite relationship” between his research and taking his lab afield.
“In the retriever world there are a lot of ‘programs’ that people follow for training a finished retriever. I’ve always taken issue with the notion that you can program a dog,” Roberts said. “Each dog is an independent thinker, and just like people learn differently, so do dogs.
“I’ve managed to train Diesel to the highest levels of the hunt test sport by inventing ways to communicate with him … I follow my gut and use my relationship with him to help him understand what I’m trying to tell him. From that I’ve learned a lot about how dogs think, how they learn, and how they communicate. Those lessons have paid off significantly in my professional life and informed the designs of our technologies considerably.”
The co-investigators in the project are Barbara Lynn Sherman, a clinical associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering. Neither participate in field sports but see practical applications of their work in the field.
“The most important practical application is to close the loop between human and working animals ... ,” said Bozkurt. “Humans and animals are intelligent but communicate using different languages. Our aim is to connect human and animal intelligence using computer intelligence where it can understand both languages.”
Sherman, whose specialties include animal behavior, expects to use the research results in her work.
“I am especially interested in animal communication, such as enabling dogs to sense information in the environment and communicating it back to a distant handler, then the handler be able to communicate remotely to the dog,” she said.
Sherman explains the possible practical applications of the research this way: “Control of dogs at a distance for search and rescue … to notify handler that a lost person has been found or an IED has been found, send back information on environmental conditions with sensors on pack.”
The team has developed a vest or pack of sensors to be worn by a dog.
Bozkurt, an electrical engineer, explains:
“My research is an ultra-miniaturized wearable and injectable sensor to track animal behavior and health. These sensors wirelessly and remotely detect what dog is doing and what it is feeling during their daily activities or working tasks.”
Several different breeds of dogs have been used in the research, and Labradors have been found to be the most suitable.
“Their friendly and cooperative nature, and eagerness to learn makes them extremely easy to work with,” Roberts said.
The NSF project will conclude in the fall of 2016, but “there is plenty more work to be done,” Roberts says. “I expect that my dream of technology-assisted interactions with dogs is going to be a lifelong pursuit…”
So far, the following are among accomplishments of the research:
• A prototype of a “smart harness” outfitted with sensors for two-way communication between human and dog.
• Sensors for determining dogs’ health and behaviors plus to give commands and rewards at a remote distance.