How robot dogs could change crime investigation and mining in South Africa

Robot dogs could make jobs safer and more efficient for police, miners, construction workers, farmers, and various other industries.

That is according to a team from the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) civil engineering department, who recently visited MyBroadband’s office to showcase several projects they were working on.

The department falls under UP’s Faculty of Engineering, Build Environment and IT.

Headed by Professor Wynand Steyn, the team recently acquired a quadrupedal robot they baptized SmWoef, short for “smart woef”. The latter is an informal Afrikaans word for dog.

SmWoef is a Unitree A1weighing about 12kg and standing less than half a meter tall when on all fours.

Civil technologist Jordan Mostert is one of the team members who has been investigating the real-life application of SmWoef.

Professor Wynand Steyn (left), head of UP’s civil engineering department, alongside PhD candidate André Broekman (middle) and civil technologist Jordan Mostert (right). On the pedestal stands SmWoef.

SmWoef is operated using four motors connected to limbs that enable him to move at speeds of up to 4.4km/h.

These also let him perform a wide range of maneuvers, including dancing, lying down, rolling over, standing on his hind legs, and doing a backflip.

Underneath SmWoef’s “paws” are sensory needles that relay information to his onboard computers to allow him to navigate his terrain.

He can also recover from a push or bump to remain in, or return to his standing position.

SmWoef’s head boasts two 1080p vision cameras and a depth-perception lens to provide visual guidance. He is also capable of viewing in a thermal mode.

Mostert said SmWoef could be programmed to lock onto certain visual objects and follow them around.

For processing capabilities, he comes fitted with an Nvidia TX2 AI computer towards the front and an x86-based computer in the back of his main body.

These two systems work together to translate and send instructions to SmWoef’s motors.

The TX2 contains most of the programming, which is currently written in C++ but can also be changed to Python.

SmWoef can be controlled via remote at up to 8 meters or programmed to automatically perform tasks at longer distances.

Its modular design allows for mounting various equipment up to a maximum payload of 5kg.

There is a wide assortment of ports on his back for inputting instructions and attaching other hardware.

That includes two Ethernet ports, four USB 3.0 ports, and two HDMI ports.

The connections enable adding sophisticated sensory tools such as a LiDAR scanner, temperature sensors, and even an artificial nose.

Mostert said with LiDAR, SmWoef can navigate autonomously and safely from one point to the next.

Adding a thermometer provides the ability to measure temperatures in areas that might be uncomfortable for humans, like close to the ground in a farmer’s crop.

The artificial nose can detect gasses and other materials that might pose a danger to humans.

“We can tell it to analyze a specific scent or chemical and follow that to a concentrated area, similar to a sniffer dog,” Mostert explained.

The robot can also step onto crime scenes before human teams to perform forensic tasks such as taking pictures and samples.

That lowers the risk of contamination of evidence and facing potential criminal threats.

In addition, the robot can be used for data collection in dangerous environments like mines, construction sites, or production facilities and perform analyzes on the state of roads.

The video and images below show some of SmWoef’s tricks during his visit to the MyBroadband office.

SmWoef staring into my soul
SmWoef lying down to conserve energy
SmWoef’s lithium-ion battery pack (the part with the green lights) provides power for around 25-30 minutes and can be switched out quickly for another when a longer work time is required.
SmWoef performs a backflip. He landed on his legs.
Standing on its hind legs, SmWoef makes a “begging” gesture

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