Rover to the Rescue: How Science, Tech, and Dogs Make the World Safer

Not every hero enlisted to help stem the spread of COVID-19 can claim a winning pedigree, years of medical education, or frontline experience. Take Kossi, for example. Although a blond, finely featured mixed-breed dog from the streets of Spain, Kossi is expertly trained to detect the scent of coronavirus – a potentially lifesaving skill.

Kossi was discovered in a cardboard box along a European highway and brought to an animal shelter, where a Finnish family eventually adopted her. After demonstrating remarkable skills in a one-year course on scent detection, Kossi’s owner brought her to Helsinki University, where Anna Hielm-Björkman and her team were training dogs to detect cancer, a practice that dates back nearly thirty years.

In 2020, Hielm-Björkman, an adjunct professor at the University of Helsinki, worked with Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport to use detection dogs, including Kossi, to sniff out passengers infected with COVID-19.

Kossi joins a legion of dogs serving a wide variety of service roles, from bomb-sniffing canines to pets that assist people with disabilities and serve as compassionate-therapy companions. Advances in medicine and technology are elevating their role, enabling dogs to make lifesaving contributions to public health and safety in the workplace. Wearable devices, augmented reality, smartphone apps, COVID-19 test kits – they’re all complementing dogs’ natural capabilities to protect humans from harm.

Police Dog Sniffing Bag

Dogs famously have acute senses of smell thanks to 300 million scent receptors – about 295 million more than humans and 10,000 times more accurate.

Work environments range from military training fields to airport lounges. Breeds include border collies, Labrador retrievers, German shepherds, and the DNA-ambiguous. And while some hail from university training centers, others have sketchier pasts, like Kossi. But there is one thing they all share: the ability to make the places where we work safer. Better yet, some are protecting workplaces at a fraction of the cost of conventional solutions and with unprecedented accuracy.

Yet for all the benefits of uniting dogs with innovative tools and technologies, there are challenges, including heightened security risks, scarce funding, and biological limitations. Overcoming these obstacles, however, promises to forever change the health and safety of workers in an often-dangerous world.

The nose knows COVID-19

Dogs have already proven their ability to sniff out diseases ranging from cancer to malaria. However, by training them to identify airport passengers and employees infected with the coronavirus, they stand to resurrect an ailing industry and protect millions of people.

To teach dogs like Kossi how to detect COVID-19, Hielm-Björkman, who specializes in clinical research of companion animals, begins by showing the dog a variety of COVID-19-positive samples, pressing on a clicker (a positive-reinforcement dog-training tool), and providing a treat each time the animal approaches the sample.

As the incidence of pandemics and our experience with them changes, we will need evolving technology to ensure our health and safety

Dogs famously have acute senses of smell thanks to 300 million scent receptors – about 295 million more than humans and 10,000 times more accurate. And Hielm-Björkman says her brightest canine student learned how to detect a positive sample in fewer than seven minutes.

“We humans haven’t used our senses for such a long time, but most animals use them to a very high extent – all of the time,” she says. The result? “Thirty million years of perfected machinery,” says Hielm-Björkman, adding that dogs can detect the infectious disease up to five days before symptoms show – considerably faster than a nasal swab polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for the coronavirus – and with nearly 100% accuracy. Results are available in 30 seconds.

Today, Hielm-Björkman says four of her highly trained dogs now work at Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, conducting between 100 and 160 tests a day on passengers. Passengers must volunteer for testing, at which point an airport authority swipes the passenger’s neck with a gauze and places it in a sterile container. Next the container is carried to another room for a dog to sniff. The dog will quickly pass over a negative sample but will be attracted to a positive one.

Although Hielm-Björkman experimented with other types of samples, such as urine and saliva, she says sweat is the most convenient for passengers and least contagious for all involved, including the dogs. Approximately 6.3% of all people who pass through the airport volunteer for the free-of-charge testing, and about 0.3% test positive for COVID-19, says Hielm-Björkman.

Female IT engineer works on desktop computer

A virtual view for soldiers

Militaries around the world rely on dogs for lifesaving activities, such as detecting explosives and searching for targets. But the limitations of human-canine communication can hamper these missions. For instance, issuing a command to a dog by using hand signals requires that the animal remain within the line of sight. And while laser pointers can extend a command’s physical reach, they increase the risk of alerting enemy factions.

A.J. Peper believes he’s found a viable solution. Founder and CEO of Command Sight, Peper has developed augmented reality-equipped goggles for military working dogs. These goggles, which fit snugly around a dog’s eyes and wrap tightly around the back of its head, contain built-in image sensors that transmit live footage of a dog’s environment remotely to its handler. “The handler can see everything the dog can see and everything that’s in the dog’s environment,” says Peper.

From there, a display screen allows the handler to deliver commands to the dog by transposing an indicator, such as a simulated laser point, over a particular area or item within the dog’s line of sight. The handler stays hidden while the augmented laser point appears to the dog, indicating where possible explosives or enemy troops are hidden.

“We can basically simulate what an indicator would look like in real life through an optic that fits over the dog’s eye,” says Peper. “That way we’re able to provide some specificity for the animal while keeping everyone safe – the enemy can’t discern who’s directing the dog, or where the dog is heading.”

In a military application, dogs are equipped with augmented-reality (AR) goggles with image sensors that can transmit live footage of their environment to a handler at a different location.

Peper began working on his AR-equipped goggles in his home kitchen with his dog Mater, a Rottweiler, in 2017. Since then, his company, Command Sight, has partnered with the U.S. Army and Navy Special Operations to build wireless prototypes for their military working dogs. Once ready for the field, Peper says he’ll be able to collect critical data that can help improve the apparatus’ system performance, ruggedization, and miniaturization.

“The system is really focused on increasing mission capabilities,” says Peper. “But for me, it’s about increasing the chances of survivability for people who are willingly putting their lives in harm’s way.”

Team of sled dogs traveling in snowy landscape

A touchscreen system for personal safety

At the Georgia Tech Animal-Computer Interaction Lab, researchers are also exploring how enhancing dog-human communication can significantly improve workplace safety. For the past several years, the team has been developing a vest, outfitted with lightweight computers and sensors, that allows dogs to communicate critical information to their handlers and others in emergency situations. Essentially, dogs tap a capacitive sensor located on the side of the vest with their noses. This action immediately triggers a text alert – messages vary based on the pattern in which the dogs touch the sensors. For example, touching the blue dot once and an orange dot twice would call for a medic.

“It’s very similar to the way the touchscreen on an iPhone works,” says Melody Moore Jackson, director of the Georgia Tech Animal-Computer Interaction Lab, who founded the project, known as FIDO (Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations).

Jackson considered new uses for her sensor-equipped dog vest after learning of a young boy on the autism spectrum who had gone missing in the Georgia mountains. Despite sending a canine-led search-and-rescue team to find him, Jackson says “it took authorities much longer to locate this young man than it should have.”

Frustrated, she thought, “What if a dog could find a person, activate an affordance on a wearable vest to immediately notify the search team, summon a drone to gain an aerial view and GPS coordinates, and then have the dog stay with that individual until help arrived – it could save lives.”

Researchers are working on a project to train a dog to touch a sensor on its vest that calls for help for workers on the job or to find a missing person in the mountains.

In fact, by allowing dogs to “speak” in ways humans can easily understand, Jackson believes the team’s nose-activated vests could play a valuable role in the workplace. An assistance dog, for example, could warn workers if an employee is about to have an epileptic seizure or tell a person who suffers from diabetes if their blood sugar is dangerously low. Jackson and her team are also examining how to easily adapt the nose-activated vest for police work, where drug-sniffing dogs could report their finds, and military work, where dogs could communicate the location and type of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“There’s so much information working dogs have to impart to their handlers and they don’t really have a good way of doing it,” says Jackson. “This technology gives dogs a voice and helps them communicate with people more clearly.”

Soldier inside SUV car, driving in desert

Jumping over hurdles

For all its benefits, there are considerable challenges when it comes to training and managing science-supported and tech-powered canines. “When you add a layer of technology between a dog and an outcome, there are many ways for it to go wrong,” warns Tarun Wadhwa, CEO of Day One Insights, a strategy and advisory firm.

Some complicating factors exist:

Design considerations: One way is by underestimating the physical limitations of designing wearable devices for dogs. “The challenge is the amount of real estate you have on a dog vest,” says Jackson, referring to her FIDO project. “Trying to miniaturize all of the electronics, speakers, and lights that you need is hard.”

Comfort: “Unlike humans, while dogs are forgiving, you can’t make a compelling argument for them to put on a fifty-pound backpack to test out equipment,” says Peper. Misplaced ruggedized components can also impede a dog’s natural movement, such as walking and running, especially if an apparatus fits the dog poorly. Proper fit is tough to determine when two species don’t speak the same language. In fact, without “a lot of qualitative feedback” from animals, Peper says it’s critical that researchers keep “a dog’s best interests in mind” by relying on “strong empirical research to understand what works for the dog” and to look for signs of discomfort or unhappiness.

Security of the systems used by dogs: Wadhwa warns of “issues around cybersecurity that could come up once you intermediate a relationship with a dog” and technology. In the case of AR-powered goggles, for instance, he notes that ill-intentioned hackers could deliberately manipulate the images in a dog’s field of vision by overlaying the screen with fake virtual objects.

And what if a dog were to act on such misinformation? Potential errors range from mistakenly detecting an explosive device on the battlefield to misidentifying an airline passenger as having COVID-19.

“I worry about issues like if a dog suspects that someone has COVID-19,” says Wadhwa. “We’re talking about suspending people’s liberties, making sure they stay at home, and restricting their rights and interactions with other people. It raises a lot of complicated questions.”

The importance of training: Excellent training can minimize the likelihood of some of these risks. Oftentimes, dogs are quick studies, eager to learn in exchange for a treat. In fact, Jackson, the Georgia Tech researcher, says, “The fastest that any of our dogs learned to use the [vest’s] sensors was 27 seconds.” The slowest was a pit bull who required nearly half an hour. Still, says Jackson, “27 minutes in the grand scheme of things is nothing. We tested everything from a basset hound to a little Jack Russell terrier to a papillon to a German shepherd and we have yet to find a dog that can’t do this.”

Happy dog sitting on couch while owner pets it

Selecting the right dogs for the job: Just because a dog can perform a task, however, doesn’t mean he’s fit for a career in workplace safety. For this reason, Jackson has worked with Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization, to develop smart toys that can help gauge a dog’s suitability for a lifelong career as a service dog.

Training service dogs is costly. Sensor data from a ball or a tugging toy can help predict if a German shepherd or Jack Russell terrier will perform well in the role.

The toys, a silicone ball and a silicone tug, are outfitted with sensors. By observing how a dog interacts with these toys, collecting sensor data, and developing classifiers that correlate the sensor data to the success (or failure) of assistance dogs, Jackson says the team “can predict with 90% accuracy which dogs are going to make it through a program and which dogs are going to fail.” The result, she says, is a technique that could save an organization an estimated US$5 million a year in training expenses spent on dogs ill-suited for service.

Bottom-line advantages such as these could drive greater investment in systems and techniques that combine the natural capabilities of dogs with scientific and technological advances. For instance, Hielm-Björkman says running her COVID-19 testing program at Finland’s Helsinki-Vantaa Airport costs much less: only 2.1% of the amount the airport would have to pay for PCR tests. “It’s a no-brainer that people around the world should fund such a program – it’s cheap and fast,” she says.

Yet as it stands, Peper of Command Sight says “one of the biggest challenges is finding funding” for innovative projects that introduce dogs to new roles in the workplace. That could change, however, if employees themselves advocate for the increased presence of canines, especially as people gradually return to the workplace. Organizations that listen, and embrace new ways of working with dogs, stand to not only improve the health and safety of their workers, but enhance employee experience when it matters most.

Behind every bark is a wealth of information that could safety-proof the workplace – if only humans and dogs shared the same language. Furbo hopes to solve this dilemma by deciphering the various noises dogs make using video footage and machine learning algorithms.

Essentially, Furbo is a streaming camera designed to take photos of a dog, dispense treats, and provide pet owners with a live feed of their pet through a smartphone app. Furbo plans to expand these capabilities with a feature that can translate the sounds of dogs into data, according to The New York Times.

This entails gathering video data of dogs barking from thousands of the device’s users and training the machine learning algorithms within the device to distinguish among these sounds based on pet owners’ feedback. Using this technology, owners will not only know when their dog is barking, but if the dog is howling or whining – a sign of a possible break-in or other emergency.

Although the goal is to provide pet owners with greater peace of mind, Furbo can assist in other ways. For instance, Furbo can alert business owners of intruders or emerging crises that threaten to impact the safety of work environments, such as warehouses or factories, that are protected by guard dogs.