While people most often see dogs as pets, we all know that they can be used in many other areas of our daily lives. They can be trained to guide someone with impaired vision or to guard a family's safety; they can search for drugs, bombs or even missing people after a disaster. But until now, they have always needed a master or human trainer to accompany them into situations that could quickly turn perilous. Enter the first autonomously controlled dog.
Using a computer and a sensoractivated vest recently developed at Auburn, canines can now be autonomously guided using various tones and vibrations. This collaborative project between the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science and Software Engineering, as well as the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, is led by engineering doctoral student Winard "Win" Britt.
These sensor-guided dogs have already attracted a great deal of attention from government and industry. By keeping humans out of harms way, these dogs and the researchers who developed the technology are saving lives.
Dave Bevly, faculty member in mechanical engineering, had applied for a grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Young Investigator Program. He submitted several possible topics, mostly focusing on the work he was already doing with guided autonomous vehicles in Auburn engineering's GPS and vehicle dynamics lab (GAVLAB), which includes control and navigation of vehicles using GPS in conjunction with other sensors, such as Inertial Navigation System (INS) sensors. The lab has several research thrusts, including sensor fusion and integration, online system identification, adaptive and robust control algorithms and vehicle state and parameter estimation. The work is focused toward vehicle dynamics and transportation systems such as heavy trucks, passenger cars, off-road vehicles, autonomous and unmanned vehicles and, as with Britt's project, even canines.
"I got a call from someone at the ONR saying they weren't really interested in any of the things Isuggested, but they did have an interest in using GPS to guide trained dogs," Bevly said. "This fit perfectly with the work the College of Veterinary Medicine was already doing, and they had no idea that we'd just had the discussion about the same thing."
The only program in the U.S. with the unique combination of veterinary, behavioral science and canine detection training professionals, Auburn's Canine Detection Research Institute (CDRI) has a history of collaboration with Auburn Engineering. It began in the 1990s due to the commonality between engineering's sensor technology development activities - which eventually became a part of the university's food safety focus - and CDRI's investigations of canine sensory capabilities. In the early 2000s, CDRI turned to the College of Engineering to provide instrumentation and materials for developing new ways of using dogs for the detection of hazardous substances. This resulted in direct collaborations on government contracts with Auburn engineering faculty members such as Bruce Tatarchuk and Dan Marghitu.
"In 2005, I was approached by members of materials and mechanical engineering and asked how they might be able to build on this research using dogs for various security and defense related tasks," said Paul Waggoner, senior scientist with the CDRI. "The goals of engineering and CDRI were very similar: to integrate technology in the use of working dogs to enhance and expand their uses in military and homeland security operations and to increase the safety of military and first-responder personnel, as well as the general public."
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