updated 2/17/2011 10:48:56 AM ET 2011-02-17T15:48:56

Trained dogs are smart enough to find bombs, drugs, people, and the safest way to cross the street -- but only with a capable handler nearby. Now a new system developed at Auburn University could turn canines into remotely guided "super dogs" that can take on risky tasks.

"With our system you don't have to be in eyesight, versus human guides that do have to be within sight," said David M. Bevly, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Auburn University who worked on the research.

In the past, remote guidance research focused on other animals or relied on invasive implanted electrodes to give commands. Instead, Bevly and his team created an external, real-time navigation system for trained dogs.

They designed a custom harness equipped with GPS, sensors, a processor and a radio modem that connects wirelessly to a computer system. The pack vibrates slightly on the left or right side and emits different tones to direct the dog.

Unlike robots, dogs have the innate capability to get past a variety of obstacles, said Paul Waggoner, a senior scientist at the Canine Detection Research Institute who worked on the study. The challenge was to create software that took the dog's natural inclinations into account while guiding him accurately to a destination.

A trained yellow lab named Major tested the system at the university's Canine Detection Research Institute. The results, which were published in the journal Personal Ubiquitous Computing, showed Major had a high success rate when directed to points several hundred meters apart.

In the trials, the dog followed directions accurately 80 percent of the time, and the computer issued correct commands 99 percent of the time.

Next, the team is looking at guiding a dog through more complex tasks, and at greater distances.

"We're looking at longer range guidance, where you might need a dog to go three or four miles," Bevly said.

The system has implications for military, security, and law enforcement operations.

"If I'm trying to locate drugs, I don't necessarily want the cartel know that I'm snooping around," Bevly said. "Maybe the dog is a little less noticeable." Dogs could also be sent to deliver medical aid to soldiers under fire, and a single handler could guide multiple dogs around an airport for inspection.

"You could operate in potentially any setting where you didn't have to have a handler nearby," said Alan Poling, a professor of psychology at Western Michigan University who studies the ability of giant African pouched rats to detect landmines. "It increases the operational capacities."

William Helton, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Canterbury who specializes in canine ergonomics, said the system could help handlers. "If you can track the body movements, you can find out if the dog is stressed or has lost interest in the task."

Waggoner recognizes that some cringe at the thought of putting an animal in harm's way.

"The reality is, a dog is much more capable at avoiding, recovering, and basically retreating from any kind of dangerous situation than a person is," he said. "Often, a person is what's encumbering a dog."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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