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Students treat robo-dogs at high-tech veterinary school

Vet center
Veterinary students simulate an examination on Robo-Jerry.Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine

Cornell University's Veterinary Center is combining forces with their Center for Advanced Computing to create a powerful, futuristic simulated vet environment — complete with robot dogs and cats. Students monitor, diagnose and treat the robo-pets in a hands-on experience critical for aspiring vets.

Anyone who has taken a first aid course knows that simulated humans are a common thing, and there are similar practice models for pets. But there's a difference between a rubber model you can do CPR on and something that behaves like a real person — or dog.

That's what Cornell's Dr. Daniel Fletcher and his colleagues are attempting to do — and not just with a better dog surrogate, but with a fully-functional model vet's office.

"The idea is to bridge preclinical lecture learning and actual clinical experience, letting students practice applying what they've learned in a safe setting before the stakes get high," explained Fletcher in a news release describing the research.

Dan Fletcher with dog
Dr. Fletcher with the first-generation robotic dog.Carly Hodes / Cornell University

Over the last two years, the Veterinary Center has put together what must be the most sophisticated simulated vet's office in the world. Students can use real vet's tools to check the pulse, breathing, and other vital stats on a robot dog and cat (Robo-Jerry and Robo-Fluffy), and can practice doing injections and inserting catheters. Their work is recorded from multiple angles and can be reviewed later by professors and classmates.

As helpful as all this is, it's still only a fraction of the everyday duties and risks of a veterinarian. Fletcher told NBC News in an email that the current robo-dog is valuable but rudimentary. "It currently can't move to respond to stimulation, it can't bite to simulate a frightened pet for handling practicing, and has only simple physiologic feedback."

That's why he's working on Butch, successor to Robo-Jerry and bearer of many improvements. Fletcher says Butch will have more realistic skin and blood vessels, an improved airway, more space inside for electronics to simulate conditions, and articulating joints for a more authentic dog-like feel. It will also be based on cheaper, off-the-shelf components.

Inside, it's governed by a new open-source software system they call URSULA, which stands for Universal Realistic Simulation of a Living Animal. It will allow for more accurate simulation of animals' symptoms and response to treatments — earlier software was based on human models, which were better than nothing but, as one might expect, highly inaccurate in some ways.

Fletcher cautioned that the vet center's scope is limited: "We're a small academic group, so progress is slow since we all have our regular responsibilities and are doing this as a side project." 

So while a robo-pig or robo-cow might be useful, don't expect one next year. But the plan is to make the system publicly accessible, both so it can be used and so other academics can contribute. "We're really hoping that the open-source model will help move this along," Fletcher wrote — "Only time will tell!"

— via Robots.net

Devin Coldewey is a contributing writer for NBCNews Digital. His personal website is coldewey.cc.