Human rescuers can watch sound and video beamed wirelessly from cameras and microphones worn by the dogs as they search. ((Natalie Ann Comeau))

A device that could help dogs save the lives of people trapped under the rubble of a collapsed building has won a Canadian technology award for its Toronto-based inventor.

High-tech dogs

The Canine Augmentation Technology (CAT) system consists of twin infrared cameras, headlights, a microphone, a small computer, a Wi-Fi node and a server attached to a harness worn by the dog. The headlights automatically turn on in the dark and the harness can break away if the dog becomes trapped.

Alex Ferworn's research group at Ryerson University has been working on the device for four years. The earliest prototype consisted of a security camera in a Sucrets box that was taped and tied to a dog's head. But tests soon showed a more robust setup was needed.

"When the dog goes into the rubble, normally it destroys our equipment," Ferworn said. Now all devices must be able to withstand being violently bashed in the lab for two minutes before qualifying for field tests.

Computer science professor Alex Ferworn of Ryerson University received this year's Community IT Hero Award for developing a device that gives search and rescue teams a dog's-eye view of the path to a trapped victim, the Information Technology Association of Canada (ITAC) announced Wednesday.

Using the Canine Augmentation Technology (CAT), human rescuers can monitor sound and video beamed wirelessly from cameras and microphones worn by the dogs as they search through the jumbled remains of buildings levelled by fires or earthquakes.

"They're wickedly fast and agile," Ferworn said Wednesday. "And they're able to penetrate very small spaces."

In many cases, it's physically impossible for humans to follow the dog. But the video and sound from CAT can tell rescuers whether the victim is alive, and how to reach him later, once the area has been stabilized.

A complementary technology developed by Ferworn's research group even allows the dogs to drop off food, water and first aid supplies to live victims until they can be rescued. The automatic system responds to the dog's barking when it finds the victim.

CAT has already been tested by the Ontario Provincial Police and four of the five Canadian Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces.

Sharing brain scan saves millions

ITAC, which represents Canada's information and communications technology industry, hands out the award each year in partnership with Industry Canada to recognize Canadians who use innovative technology to help others.

A Corporate IT Hero Award was also handed out at a ceremony in Toronto Tuesday night, alongside the community award, to GE Healthcare IT for a system that lets neurosurgeons and medical imaging technicians view patient brain scans from distant locations across Ontario. That prevents stressful and costly patient transfers when they are not necessary.

The system is used in cases where a person with a brain injury ends up in the emergency ward of a hospital in a rural area or small community. A technician usually takes a CT scan of the brain, but previously that image could not be sent to a neurosurgeon at a larger hospital.

As a result, the patient was often sent to the larger hospital as a precaution, in case surgery was needed.

The Centricity Enterprise Archive, when it is completed, will allow medical staff across Ontario to view CT scans from 175 CT scanners throughout the province via a web-based system.

According to eHealth Ontario, the provincial agency that funds the project, the system has already saved $5 million since Dec. 1, 2008, when it was first launched at nine sites in the province in collaboration with the London Health Sciences Centre.


The CAT system has already been tested by Const. Kevin Barnum, left, and other members of the OPP Provincial Emergency Response Team. ((Natalie Ann Comeau))

Medical staff believe it has also saved patients and their families a lot of unnecessary stress. The $2-million system is expected to be operational provincewide by the end of the year.

In the case of CAT, Ferworn estimates that another year and a few hundred thousand dollars worth of research are still needed before the device can be deployed in the field without his assistance. Currently, experts in the technology are needed to interpret the data and supply equipment, as most search and rescue command posts don't have computers, he said.

Ferworn hopes the hero award will prompt a funding agency or company to step forward and help fund the product's final stages of development and commercialization.


  • Alex Ferworn estimates a few hundred thousand dollars worth of research is still needed before the CAT device can be deployed in the field without his assistance, not a few hundred dollars as reported originally.
    Jun 25, 2009 9:34 AM ET