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Contact: John Blair
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

Dogs and robots share NIST special test arena

Police Officer Michael Millsaps Jr. of the Amtrak Police Department rewards his dog Bak for finding a hidden gun under debris at the NIST reference test arena for urban search and rescue and explosive ordnance disposal robots.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Some unusual guests have been visiting the National Institute of Standards and Technology or NIST lately. The guests are dogs and the police officers who train them. Every month as many as 10 to 20 dogs from local police departments and other organizations visit NIST in Gaithersburg, Md. They come to use a special training course that was actually built for robots.

The course looks like part of a building that has collapsed. It is used to train robots that search for people who might be trapped in the rubble of a building. It can also be used by robots that find and turn off bombs so that they will not explode. The training course has furniture, broken concrete, stairs, collapsed walls, and lots of papers and other scattered objects. It also has life-size plastic dolls that serve as "pretend" victims.

The dogs use the NIST robot test course to hunt for hidden drugs and bombs. Small samples of bomb materials or drugs like heroin or marijuana are first hidden within the test course. Then police officers and their dogs go through the course. The police officers point to where they want their dogs to sniff. When the dog smells a drug or a bomb they sit down to let the police officer know that they have found something important.

Individual dogs are trained in locating drugs or bombs, but not both. The police officers must know why a dog is sitting. In a real search, when a dog finds a bomb, the police officer must be very careful not to disturb it before it can be turned off.

When police dogs find drugs or a bomb, their masters pet them or play with them as a reward.

"A dog just wants to play," said Sergeant Rick Hawkins of the National Institutes of Health Police Department. "When we go home we look at our paycheck. A dog has his toy and that's what he works for." Hawkins' six-year-old black Labrador retriever is named Flyer. Flyer is trained to find drugs.

The police trainers like having an indoor practice course and that has lots of objects to challenge their dogs' skills. At the same time, it's helpful for NIST robotics researchers to see how the police officers and their dogs carefully search for bombs.

In April, NIST robot engineers helped with the 2005 RoboCup German Open international competition in Germany. The experts helped build a new test course like the one at NIST. Companies and researchers from many different countries competed to see who had built the best robots for rescue operations.


Click here to see a video about how police dogs are using the NIST robot-training course: http://realex.nist.gov:8080/ramgen/robot2.smi