Video Game Trains Bomb-Sniffing Dog Handlers

Sit, roll over, detect IEDs

Screens showing ROVER in action

U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

Small, homemade bombs are an ever-present threat in America's wars. Commonly known as Improvised Explosive Devices, or IEDs, these bombs are easily made by insurgents, hidden along patrolled roads, and surprisingly deadly. In the early years of the Iraq war, the Department of Defense commissioned a serious bomb-proof vehicle program and borrowed lessons from submarine warfare to protect troops against these bombs. There's another, lower-cost way for America to fight IEDs: Dogs.

Dog noses can smell the toxic plumes that emanate from unexploded bombs, and detect them at much lower thresholds than both human noses and human-made chemical sniffers. When trained to detect the right kinds of scents, dogs will lead their handlers to the trap. From there, ordinance disposal teams can take appropriate action and, if need be, send in robots to inspect and disarm of the suspicious package.

Marines patrol Afghanistan poppy fields with a dog

U.S. Marine Corps

In order for this all to work, though, the dog has to search for the smell, and then lead the handler to it. If the handler can't interpret the dog's actions correctly, the dog may instead follow the handler's urging and ignore a scent it's been tracing. That's where ROVER comes in. A module for the military's Virtual Battlespace simulation tool, ROVER teaches handlers how to listen to their dogs. Here's how Adam Moses, a computer scientist with the Naval Research Laboratory, describes the value of training with ROVER in a press release:

"If a dog's going down a street, every now and then you'd see him glance to the left or right when he passed an alleyway. And sometimes he would glance longer or stop, and that's one of those cues that's really important; that's when you have to read something from the dog." A dog is trying to please the handler, so if the handler keeps the dog moving instead of looking at what's caught the dog's attention, the dog is less likely to display that cue again. "An inexperienced handler can un-train a dog by accident," says Moses, "so better that they could spend a week on one of these and, if they make a mistake here, it's no big deal."

In ROVER simulations, handlers follow a virtual dog as they chase down the scent of a bomb. Handlers communicate with their dogs through gestures read by an Xbox Kinect, learning how to guide the dogs and at the same time reading dog gestures that will lead them to the bomb site. It’s a virtual lesson in defeating a very real threat.

Watch a video of the game below: