Summer is well underway, and after a long cold winter here in Philadelphia, I’ve been enjoying long hikes and trips to local swimming holes with my pup. Sometimes I worry, as the days have gotten hotter, that my hound will overheat, dehydrate, or merely overdo it. It’s often hard to tell when something is wrong with our four-legged friends, until they are in a crisis.
“The tendency of a companion animal is to disguise a problem. It is in their nature because to show it is to become vulnerable. They hide everything until the last moment and then it’s too late,” said Avi Menkes, chief executive officer (CEO) of PetPace.
PetPace is one player in a hot new trend: The creation of smart collars for our canine and feline friends. Many smart pet collars are like human activity trackers. Slap one on a beagle (who is known as the “canine escape artist”) and you can track where he or she is and even set up a geofence to receive alerts if he or she wanders outside of a designated area. Pet owners can track a pet’s activity level, calories burned, and his or her quality of sleep. This makes the PetPace collar more like an activity tracker and medical device all rolled into one, and the design approach and technology the organization applies in such a small space is interesting.
Menkes has a lot of remote sensing experience, but it was in the business-to-business supply chain world. He explained that he was looking to use his knowledge to create something that served a greater good. He wanted to give someone a voice who previously didn’t have one. That someone turned out to be cats and dogs, and his device allows them to tell their humans how they are feeling.
While the collar is an engineering feat, Menkes points out that it was not born from engineering but from a notion of how to give our pets better lives and their owners peace of mind. Instead of asking what we want to know, the PetPace team asked: “What is a pet telling us?”
“We took electrical engineering, veterinary medicine, physics, and computer science and married them together. Each one is a different discipline, yes, it's a piece of hardware, but you have to understand the pet’s biology. The collar uses some physics algorithms and on the back end it's signal processing analytics and machine learning.”
With the help of cofounder and chief veterinarian Dr. Asaf Dagan, PetPace determined that it would need to monitor body temperature, pulse, respiration, heart rate variability (HRV), activity level, calories burned, and positions. Initially, they chose not to monitor the dog’s global positioning, and they decided instead to concentrate on whether a dog is sitting or lying down (in which position or on what side).
Dogs are creatures of habit in subtle ways. They often lie on the same side of their body. Should a dog suddenly start lying on the opposite side, the PetPace collar, by way of a three-axis accelerometer, notices the change and determines if it’s an indication of a change in behavior or just an anomaly. If the algorithm determines the change is significant, it alerts the owner. That level of monitoring allows the pet’s owner to seek medical advice long before a problem manifests itself in a way they can easily see or feel, such as in the form of a tumor-producing lump.
Once the PetPace team identified what they wanted to monitor, they began identifying the technology that would go into the collar. In some cases, it was a process of elimination. Take for example pulse oximetry, a common method for measuring how much of the hemoglobin in blood is carrying oxygen. Pulse oximeters use laser and infrared light to determine oxygen saturation. However, laser sensors do not work on dogs with dark fur. Likewise, an infrared sensor was not viable because it would require an owner to shave their dog’s neck to get a proper signal, and it was important that everything would work non-invasively.
Pursuing an alternative, PetPace chose to employ acoustic monitoring, which functions similar to a stethoscope, yet it uses a piezoelectric sensor with acoustic concentrators on one side of the collar and acoustic balancers on the other side to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. This allows the collar to measure a pet’s pulse and respiration while filtering out irrelevant sounds such as panting or the sounds associated with head movements.
The collar continuously monitors the pulse to create an accurate picture of a pet’s HRV. It can capture a pulse not only when dogs or cats are resting but also when they are leaping into the air to catch their favorite toy.
Menkes gives the example of a cat owner who received an alert that the pet’s HRV was atypical. The pet appeared fine, but the owner took it to the vet regardless and found out the cat had an extensive hyperthyroid situation. Had the owner waited three months for the apparent symptoms to show up in the cat, such as severe weight loss, the cat would already be losing kidney function.
Temperature was another hurdle to overcome. Non-invasively measuring core temperature is impossible. PetPace’s patented algorithm calculates the thermoregulation of a dog to determine if the dog has a fever, is overheating, is suffering from hypothermia, or is lying in the sun or in front of an air-conditioner. The collar and the algorithms learn the trends of the pet to understand their characteristics and then determines when there is a deviation.
“When you start to put the collars on pets, suddenly you have objective data,” said Menkes.
Not only did the collar have to be non-invasive, but it had to be rugged, considering dogs like mine have a love for all things wet and dirty (and stinky, unfortunately). To address this matter, the PetPace collar has an IP67 rating, protecting it from dust and immersion in water to depths up to 1m (about 3ft.) for 30 minutes.
PetPace engineers are now working on adding Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation capabilities to the collars. As anyone who has ever turned on a smartphone’s GPS to access directions when walking around town knows, the transmission of GPS data has a draining effect on the battery, which causes power loss. PetPace is trying to solve this problem via algorithms that will determine when the GPS should and should not be transmitting data.
The American Pet Products Association estimates that Americans are spending $70 million on their pets, so it’s easy to see why the smart collar trend is taking off here in the United States and around the world. It’s less about an indulgence than about a tool that engineers have created to give our pets a voice.
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