Katie Matlack ’06 described her dog Poochi as “friendly yet imposing.” But Poochi is no rottweiller — he’s half dog, half tank.

Matlack was enrolled in a mechanical engineering class last semester with Professor Natalie Jeremijenko, which is part of the Feral Robotic Dog Project. The Project seeks to expand the research and use of robotic dogs and facilitate communication among researchers.

Students started with commercially available robotic dogs designed by companies such as Sony and Mattel to approximate a domestic house pet — sans carpet stains and pooper-scoopers — and upgrade their mechanical performances. The final products were dogs that could not only fetch, but also detect environmental toxins.

Jeremijenko, who worked on the Project with her research assistants William Kavesh and Jesse Arnold, said she designed the course to fulfill two of her “pedagogical objectives.”

“[I wanted] to contextualize the design projects in a way that [would further] the students’ understanding of social and political issues,” she said.

Jeremijenko placed equal emphasis on developing students’ hands-on skills and their comprehension of programming technology. She said that the upgrade process involves altering the dogs’ brains, noses and mechanical processes.

According to Jeremijenko, the process is by no means an easy one.

“Just because the dogs are cute doesn’t mean that they’re less complicated,” she said. “All of the technical problems being faced by students are the same technical problems being faced by designers of [Land] Rovers.”

In order to upgrade their dogs, students must first alter their mechanical functions. Next, they must implant new microprocessors into the dogs’ brains that instruct them to communicate with humans and fellow dogs in a manner that is easy to comprehend.

“[The brain affects] the structure of participation between robots and people,” Jeremijenko said. “The dogs can effectively communicate information to a diverse range of people in real time, [because] the information is read in the dogs’ movements.”

This ability to communicate works with the installation of an environmental toxin sensor in the dogs’ noses to further the efforts of Jeremijenko and Project members to protect people from the risks posed by environmental toxins in public areas.

“I can’t think of a better use [of robots] than protecting the public from environmental [hazards],” Jeremijenko said.

Jeremijenko’s team has performed feral robotic dog site explorations in areas of public concern such as parks and water treatment plants in New York and Florida. Their latest project is a survey of a remedial middle school in Hamden, conducted in conjunction with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.

New Haven’s abandoned industrial sites, some of them adjacent to public parks and residences, have not escaped the dogs’ persistent noses. Jeremijenko said the team most recently tested an old commercial laundry site, which revealed what she termed “peculiar characteristics.” She said she plans to continue investigating the site.

She added that she hopes more schools will get involved with the Project, as it proved to be an invaluable experience for both her and her students.

Jeffrey Warren ’06, who got involved in the Project after taking Jeremijenko’s class, said he is currently working with other students to develop a dog from scratch.

“We’re trying to make the idea [of the class and project] into something bigger,” he said. “It’s exciting to be a part of [the project].”

The dogs are currently on display in Art Space in New Haven and Gigantic Art Space in New York.