As the fifth anniversary of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami approaches, Japanese scientists are looking to put a new kind of dog into the fight to rescue survivors of
future disasters: a canine strapped into a hi-tech vest that will allow it to function like a robot.
The combination of a dog’s acute sense of smell and gadgets attached to the animal that include a camera and global positioning system, could help speed up search-and-rescue operations and save lives.
A group of Japanese engineers developed the Robo-Dog system, led by Kazunori Ohno at Tohoku University, which is set to begin final trials this year.
The camera mounted on the dog’s vest sends images wirelessly to personal computers or mobile devices while a GPS and various other sensors allow the dog’s route to be displayed on a digital map.
Ohno, 39, 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 Daiichi 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. “Dogs can find people with their strong olfactory sense.”
Ohno’s team began the Robo-Dog project in April 2011, shortly after the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami devastated wide areas of northeastern Japan on March 11 that same year.
The team of university researchers developed the dog vests after receiving backing from government funding programmes.
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 1kg,was developed for medium-sized dogs of about 20kg to 25kg.
“It was so hard to put the device on animals since we’ve never done so before,” Ohno said.
An initial heavier prototype was particularly problematic as dogs would refuse to move after only a few minutes of being strapped into it, he added.
But a rescue dog named Gonta was able to successfully perform simulations repeatedly recently, locating people buried under a mock partially destroyed house 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,” said Kazuo Hamano, of the Japan Rescue Dog Association.
Ohno’s team is planning to lend the vest to the association later this year in the hope its rescue