Taking an elephant by the collar
The US Army Research Office in Durham, NC, was working with Adventures with Elephants near Bela Bela in South Africa when they contacted the College of Engineering in hopes of finding a way to limit elephant rampages and damage caused by elephants wandering into populated areas, saving human and elephant lives in the process.
October 27, 2014 By NC State ECE
Imagine you are on foot, a sentient dump truck is angry with you, and it can follow you home. It might come crashing through your walls at night, or it might eat all of your food and empty your bank account while doing so.
This is a reality for many villagers in African nations – in the form of rampaging elephants. A wild elephant’s multi-ton size and matching appetite has led to conflict between the animals and farmers trying to protect their crops, their equipment, and ultimately their lives.
For one group of NC State engineering students, learning that these creatures shared a fear that many humans hold – a swarm of bees and their sting – got them steps closer to addressing a problem that has existed for centuries in Africa and India.
Over spring break, two senior design teams and leaders from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Textile Engineering, Chemistry and Science flew to Johannesburg, South Africa. The US Army Research Office in Durham, NC, was working with Adventures with Elephants near Bela Bela in South Africa when they contacted the College of Engineering in hopes of finding a way to limit elephant rampages and damage caused by elephants wandering into populated areas, saving human and elephant lives in the process.
The College responded.
The team developed a self-powered tracking and stimulation collar with some similarity to an invisible fence for dogs – a collar that provides sensory “warnings” to elephants approaching a village or farm. Unlike an invisible fence system, this collar operates with GPS, and a boundary may be “drawn” in any shape around a farm or village.
When the team arrived in Johannesburg, they quickly discovered they were missing one thing: a bolt that would be used to securely fasten the collar around the elephant’s neck. After rummaging through a bucket of bolts and screws, the team was able find one that would work, after a few adjustments to the collar.
The team’s collar has three stimuli signals; each subsequent signal is more potentially distressing to the elephant. The first signal is the sound of swarming bees. The second signal is a combination of the sound stimulus and a vibration mimicking the sensation of bees swarming around the elephant’s neck. The third and final signal is a combination of the sound stimulus and an electric shock meant to simulate a bee sting.
The team tested the collar in an open field by placing apples in the middle of three circles drawn with corn starch. Each circle represented a boundary, and stimuli were manually administered as the elephant crossed the line to enter a new circle.
When the elephant was tested, it paused immediately upon hearing the “buzz” of the first stimulus, and stopped in its tracks upon feeling the vibration stimulus. Once “trained,” the elephant was led away from the field. The second time, upon application of the first stimulus, the elephant turned and quickly moved away from the direction of the circle. From the testing, the team concluded that the vibration stimulus was the most effective.
The team hopes that future teams can improve upon the design and eventually make elephant collars that can be sold and placed on roaming elephants to help resolve the problem of unwanted human-elephant conflict. Hopefully their research was a giant step.
Credit: Adapted from the NCSU Engineering News Article “Taking an elephant by the collar” by Joel Orr