Paws 'Dogcam' aids search-and-rescue with canine tech
- 8 March 2012
- From the section Technology
The first thing you remember is that the floor was trembling and the ceiling cracked - could it have been an earthquake?
You look around and see things from your house in unusual places. Floorboards are strewn about you and your bed is at ninety degrees, trapping your legs.
Suddenly the friendly face of a dog weaves through the rubble and licks your face. It barks, then a human voice asks if you are OK.
This is not a hallucination, Narnia, or your first taste of the afterlife.
You have been saved by a rescue dog fitted out with the latest application of wireless broadcast technology.
Instead of bringing you some alcohol, this modern day St Bernard offers you the chance to communicate in real time video with your human rescuers. Help is at hand.
Paws for thought
The application is called Paws, an acronym for portable, all-terrain, wireless system.
It has been developed by the UK firm Wood & Douglas, which specialises in wireless broadcast technology applications.
The British firm grew out of one man's hobby in a spare room. Now Alan Wood's company has a turnover of around £7m, employs over 60 people, and has just opened a million pound technology manufacturing centre in Young's Industrial Estate, in Berkshire.
The company's wireless portfolio includes remote surveillance equipment for railway lines, to combat cable theft, and radio devices for anti-piracy operations at sea.
Its latest product applies wireless video broadcast technology to the field of search and rescue - as practised by dogs.
Grant Notman from the firm demonstrated the product for the BBC at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Practice Centre, in Fort Widley, near Portsmouth.
The centre has a mock disaster zone, a section of land strewn with securely fastened debris.
Full of nooks and crannies, it is the perfect place to practise everything from earthquake rescues to drug busts.
Mr Notman and his team have corralled their estate cars at the scene as if this is a real rapid disaster response.
An antenna is set up to receive the information that the dogs will broadcast.
Mr Notman's car is kitted out as a "receive station". It contains a large monitor where the person co-ordinating the rescue can see the video come in live.
A smaller monitor that straps to the hand is designed for those getting closer to the action.
Children and animals
"Go find your toy!" says Robin Furniss, today's dog handler, rolling a red ball.
With these words, the border collie knows that a familiar game is afoot.
Mr Furniss, a fire investigations officer, knows how to get his dogs into a business frame of mind.
Whining noises confirm the ploy is working.
But first he must get the dog into a harness, which does not come naturally to canines.
Helping to tether the dog, Mr Notman explains why - despite the complex broadcast technology - making the product dog-friendly has been the hardest part of the product's journey.
First of all the smallest and lightest possible kind of camera had to be sourced.
Previous cameras - suitable for human head cams - weighed too heavily on the dogs' heads, and were unworkable.
The body harness and head strap had to be as light and unobtrusive as possible too - no mean feat when dogs come in different shapes and sizes, even within breeds.
Despite the tender attentions of Mr Furniss, it is clear that when the dogs lose interest in the game of rescuing, they soon turn their attentions to removing the pesky equipment.
They also do not approve of trying to find the same human more than once.
Canine co-operation has been essential every step of the way.
A volunteer in an orange jumpsuit lies in a crevice towards the bottom of the rubble.
As the border collie flashes through the debris trying to find him, Mr Notman is able to look at the footage of areas inaccessible to humans, back at his car.
The day and night camera automatically switches to infrared when the dog is in the dark.
When the dog finds his man, he barks incessantly, rooted to the spot, to announce the game has finished.
The wireless broadcast system that has been created for this scenario, Mr Notman explains, can be encrypted for sensitive operations.
The firm anticipates it will be useful for the fire and police services, as well as the military.
It could be used, for example, for operations after an avalanche, for drug raids, or for finding a fugitive.
Wood & Douglas are confident the product is robust and can improve search-and-rescue, ultimately being able to save lives.
However, the success of the so-called "dogcam" product depends on whether the dogs at potential clients like the Ministry of Defence and fire and rescue services across the country, decide to play ball.