At disaster sites such as building collapses, it's not uncommon to see trained dogs being used to sniff out trapped survivors, often squeezing into areas that are inaccessible by human rescue workers. Now, thanks to a new "smart" harness, such dogs may be able to play an even bigger role, by gathering and relaying vital information on their surroundings.

The harness is being developed at North Carolina State University by researchers Alper Bozkurt (who previously brought us remote-control cockroaches) and David Roberts, as one component of the Smart Emergency Response System, or SERS. Other parts of the system, being developed at other US institutions, include drones and robots. The plan is that once SERS is up and running, all three components could deployed at sites simultaneously, working together and sharing data via a computer interface.

For their SERS contribution, Bozkurt and Roberts started with off-the-shelf dog harnesses, then added a variety of sensors that allow for environmental monitoring, dog monitoring and active communication.

The environmental sensors include basics like cameras, microphones and GPS, although the system is designed so that workers could attach other more specific sensors as needed, depending on the situation. These could include things like gas sensors or Geiger counters, which would wirelessly transmit data to other SERS components, including a central command center or a nearby handheld unit.

The sensors would not only let rescue workers know of conditions which could be hazardous to themselves or the victims, but would also let them know if the dog itself were in danger. Along those lines, an additional group of sensors monitor the dog's physiology and behavior, transmitting data such as its heart rate. This information would both keep users apprised of the dog's well-being, and additionally let them know if it were excited by something such as a scent.

Finally, the harness' active communication system lets trainers relay verbal commands to dogs via onboard speakers. Additionally, a tactile system is in development, that would instead relay commands using vibrating motors embedded in the harness. Roberts is quick to point out, however, that the vibrations are meant as "nudges," not punishments, and that the dogs are being trained to respond to them using purely reward-based techniques.

An unrelated system, which similarly relays trainers' commands using speakers and motors contained in a harness, is being developed by a team at Auburn University in Alabama.

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