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Inside Science and Technology 

Navy Researchers Probing Secrets of Fido’s Nose 

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By Grace V. Jean 

Because scientists are still struggling to develop technologies that can sniff out explosives as effectively as the canine nose, the armed forces in the meantime have turned to man’s best friend for help in countering hidden bombs.

“The best sensor … on the battlefield right now to find homemade explosives is the nose of a Labrador,” Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, commanding general of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told reporters in Washington.

The Corps is deploying to Afghanistan hundreds of Labrador retrievers to help infantry squads track down improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, before they detonate. Sensors typically find only half of the devices; dog teams on the other hand are detecting 80 percent of them, said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Oates, who directs the Defense Department’s Joint IED Defeat Organization.

To support the effort, the Office of Naval Research is seeking help from industry, academia and the working dog community to demystify canine olfaction and to better train both dog and human handlers how to out-sniff the enemy.

“We haven’t explored very much about dogs and cognition,” said Lisa Albuquerque, manager of ONR’s naval expeditionary dog science and technology program. “As humans understand what capabilities dogs have, I just see there’s an opportunity there to take a look at all the different ways technology can help us to work with dogs, and help dogs work with us.”  

The research office wants to fund initiatives to improve the nutrition and care of the canines, develop technologies that can measure and mitigate their stress levels in combat zones, and explore sensors and systems that they could carry onto the battlefield, among others.

Training is a key focus. Inconsistency on the part of trainers causes problems for the IED detector dogs when they are learning to target specific odors. One possible solution is to eliminate the person at the end of the leash and rely solely on computer technology, said Albuquerque. For example, instead of a human leading the dog through repetitive find-the-target-odor exercises, the dog could enter the room by itself and explore the place as it naturally would. When the dog correctly identifies the target odor, the virtual trainer would reward it by lobbing a ball into the room.

“I think we would end up with a much stronger foundation for the work that comes after with that dog,” said Albuquerque.  

Dog handlers returning from combat are asking for better ways to understand and train for what the animals are smelling in the field, she added. The Naval Research Laboratory has developed computer models of odor plume dynamics for chemical and biological warfare. Coupling those models with military virtual trainers for IED detection could yield a simulation in which dog handlers control avatars to practice their skills on a virtual Labrador before they train on the real thing. It would not replace the live animal training that handlers receive during their five-week instruction period, Albuquerque cautioned. But it would give them a new level of insight, she said.

Having a fundamental understanding of canine olfaction would help tremendously, she pointed out.

“There’s a huge range of things we don’t know,” she said. When dogs are finding explosives, it is unclear whether they smell the particles because the wind is blowing over the specimen or because the wind is picking up particles that have fallen on the ground. It is also unknown whether canines process complex odors as individual components or as a holistic entity.

“If we actually knew what a dog smelled when he smells beef stew, that would inform the way that we train dogs when we’re training them to find things that are a combination of odors,” Albuquerque said.

That information in turn could potentially help designers develop digital trainers for working K-9 teams.

The office also is exploring the potential for dogs to act as technology platforms, as opposed to just being a mobile sensor. “We do think the opportunity exists for the dog to be a carrier of things,” she said. Though she declined to elaborate further on the topic, Albuquerque said that as much as robots have become effective tools for bomb disposal units, the possibility exists for dogs to raise the bar even higher.

“Dogs have natural intelligence that is far superior to anything you’re going to find in a robot. So our challenge is to try to figure out how do we communicate with the dog and have the dog communicate with us well enough so that we can leverage the dog’s existing intelligence,” she said.

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