Technology

Fido gets even techier tools

July 31, 2013 at 9:22 AM ET

Melody Jackson
Melody Jackson
Sky the Border Collie chomps into a bite sensor, one of a few different doggie communication tools that researchers at Georgia Tech are developing.

Divided as we may be on the right and wrong places to wear Google Glass, the numbers have spoken: the wearable electronics' market for humans is about to explode into a $6 billion festival by 2016. In development are wristbands, health-sensing tattoos and more.

That tech is also reaching our four-legged friends. Researchers around the world are building trackers and sensors — animal-friendly ones that are light, waterproof, and activated by bites, tugs and taps of the nose. Not long from now, they'll help humans track the health and ailments of their pets, and even let man's best friend finally talk back.

The FIDO — Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations — research team at Georgia Tech wants to give some of our smartest helpers a voice.

"If a dog could communicate clearly with a human being, there are so many ways it would be life-changing for the human and even life-saving,"Melody Jackson, associate professor at Georgia Tech and director of the BrainLab, told NBC News. Jackson herself wears a FitBit "all the time" and she also has six dogs.

Jackson and a group of researchers at the university including Google Glass pioneer Thad Starner, are building communication tools activated by bites, tugs and taps of the nose.

Since 1995, Jackson has trained assistance dogs for Canine Companions for Independence, and she's using some of that experience to help train assistance dogs to use sensors that are activated by gestures that uniquely canine.

The group has tested two different bite sensors, a tugging sensor worn on the dog's back, and a motion sensor detector, like those in paper towel dispensers in public restrooms. "We wanted to see if the dogs would wave their nose at it," Jackson said. "The dogs figured it out better than I figured out the paper towels."

Though the team tested FIDO on highly-trained assistance dogs, Jackson believes any dog would be able to pick up some of these tricks. Her own Border Collie, Sky, and Pappillon, Lazer, have been in the lab and Lazer's quite good at pushing the sensor with his nose, Jackson said.

Not too long from now, when a seizure assistance dog senses that her owner is about to have an episode, Jackson hopes the dog will be able to push a button on a vest, or tap a sensor with his nose to send a text message: "Stu's having a seizure, here's where we are now. Love, Fido."

Cassim Ladha
Cassim Ladha
A waterproof collar designed by researchers at Newcastle University has been tested on pigs, horses, cats and dogs.

'Like a FitBit on steroids'
Whether you're a person or a pug, having a wearable tracker that's waterproof is always handy.

In the United Kingdom, Cassim Ladha and his fellow researchers were testing the water-resistive ability of a new wearable sensor that people could wear as they washed up. He tested it by strapping it to his dog's collar and playing fetch near a river. That's when it hit them: What if they just used the tracker for pets all the time?

In the last 18 months or so, Ladha and and a team of researchers at Newcastle University in Newcastle Upon Tyme has been modifying sensors that can track sheepdogs in therapy, pet dogs, dressage horses, cats, and pigs.

"It's like a FitBit on steroids," Nils Hammerla, who is Ladha's colleague on the project, told NBC News.

The group recently finished a study on dogs, and showed that they could track 16 different dog movements — including running, shaking, sitting and chewing — just by placing a small accelerometer and transmitter on their collars. The dogs didn't notice a thing, Ladha said: the recommended weight for a 45-pound dog would be 11 pounds, or about two Coke bottles. "We've got a sensor that weighs less than a bag of chips," he said. "It's no problem to these particular animals."

The group is exploring using the sensors as surrogate trackers for humans who may be a bit vary of wearing health trackers themselves. After all, dogs are often emotionally and physically in sync with their owners. If there's a sudden drop in activity levels — if walks suddenly become shorter or less frequent — Hammerla said, "Either there's something wrong with the dog, but more likely there's something wrong with your grandmother."

A movement tracking sensor is attached to the rump of a farm pig.
Cassim Ladhi / Celine Fraysse
A movement tracking sensor is attached to the rump of a farm pig.

Pigs and sitting
The sensors have also found their way onto the rumps of pigs. The group was invited to test their sensors in tracking the muscle movements of these farm animals, some of which had a genetic condition which made them clumsy sitters.

"They go down to their elbows, then they struggle with the back legs underneath them, and then lean to one side" and then, Ladha said, "The bad ones flop to one side."

Sometimes, they sit on their piglets by accident. "That's obviously a problem if you're a pig farmer," Ladha said, possibly more so if you're a piglet.

But, with the sensor, "You can detect all the different stages of the sit," he said, and "[identify] the pigs which are good at sitting down."

The waterproof animal gait tracker is also being used to collect data on the effectiveness of hydrotherapy relaxation sessions in sheepdogs, to find the best bit to use on a dressage horse, and how to tell if the purr you hear from your cat is one of affection, or a run-up to "Attack!"

Urban pet owners may not fret daily about falling pigs, but their animals suffer a serious ailment: obesity. Over in Cincinnati, one company believes that technology could help treat that. Healthy Pet Technologies is building what's essentially a FitBit for dogs, with the simple goal of making sure your pet gets enough exercise, even if you don't.

The company, co-founded by Ashwin Nath, is developing a smart collar that's like a FitBit that's been adjusted for the movements of a dog. Without using a smartphone app, Nath explained, the collar would light up to indicate if your dog's been active while you've been at work, or if its long overdue for a long walk.

For a more nuanced read, the collar transmits information via Bluetooth to a computer or phone application. Nath, in collaboration with researchers at Fordham University, has tested a prototype collar on about 60 different dogs that include terriers, labradors and various mixes. At WagTag.com, the team's opening up a beta test to trial the collar on dogs of various sizes.

You'd think that after 33,000 years of dog domestication, humans are happy with the relationship they've settled on with their best friend. But the researchers have found that pet owners are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about being able to talk to their pets, whether they train seeing-aid dogs every day, or are merely concerned that lately, Milo's been getting a bit of a paunch.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and technology. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

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