Tohoku team touts Robo-Dog technology in disaster rescues



Scientists are looking to put a new kind of dog into the fight to rescue survivors of future disasters: a canine strapped into a high-tech vest that will allow it to function somewhat like a robot.

The combination of a dog’s acute sense of smell and gadgets attached to the animal, including a camera and global positioning system, could help speed up search-and-rescue operations and save lives.

Developed by a group of Japanese engineers led by Kazunori Ohno at Tohoku University, the Robo-Dog system is set to undergo final trials this year.

The system works by mounting a camera to a dog’s vest, which then sends images wirelessly to a computer or mobile device. The GPS and various other sensors allow the dog’s route to be displayed on a digital map.

“We thought it would be useful if we can record a search-and-rescue dog’s activities, and visualize where the dog searches and what view prompted the dog to react,” said Ohno, 39.

Ohno embarked on the research after helping in the development of the Quince remote-controlled crawler robot, which succeeded in surveying radiation levels from reactor buildings of the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.

The success showed how effective robots can be in places people cannot enter. The next step was to develop a way of locating victims who have no way of making their presence known.

“We often hear from rescuers that there are cases where people are invisible in a vast area but in need of urgent help,” said Ohno, an associate professor of the university. “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),” he said.

Ohno’s team began the Robo-Dog project in April 2011, shortly after the magnitude-9.0 earthquake and tsunami devastated wide areas of northeastern Japan on March 11 that year, leaving more than 18,000 people dead or unaccounted for, while triggering a nuclear crisis.

Based in the calamity-affected prefecture of Miyagi, the team of mainly Tohoku University researchers developed the dog vests after receiving backing from the ImPACT TRC and CREST MI government funding programs for technological innovation.

Rescue dogs are trained to bark to notify handlers of someone in trouble. When a dog locates a missing person, the location will be marked on a digital screen map in real time.

The vest, which weighs about 1 kg, was developed for medium-sized dogs of about 20 kg to 25 kg. It was designed not to hamper a rescue dog’s movements following a series of tests in collaboration with the Japan Rescue Dog Association.

“It was so hard to put the device on animals since we’ve never done so before,” Ohno said, adding that the initial heavier prototype was particularly a hassle as dogs would refuse to move only a few minutes after being strapped into it.

But a rescue dog named Gonta was recently able to successfully perform simulations repeatedly, locating people buried under a mock damaged house or rubble for more than an hour while wearing the latest Robo-Dog system.

“Video footage sent from this system will enable us to check the situation in a place where people cannot go,” Kazuo Hamano, 54, of the dog association said at a training center in Fujimi, Saitama Prefecture. Hamano said this should, in turn, help rescuers form a plan as to what equipment to bring to a site.

The Tokyo-based association joined the rescue operation in tsunami-inundated areas in Miyagi during the 2011 disaster, as well as a major mudslide in Hiroshima in August 2014.

Ohno’s team is planning to lend the vest to the association later this year in the hope its rescue dogs and handlers will become accustomed to the equipment in preparation for future disasters.

He said he believed the system will contribute to the effective and accurate transmission of data obtained by rescue dogs and prove how clever the animals can be.

The system could also help determine the severity of injuries through video footage in order to prioritize disaster victims.

“Dogs can find people, but they can’t make a judgment for 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.”