Jan 10, 2016 | By Kira

Desert Biologist Tim Shields has spent over 35 years exploring the wilds of Southwestern USA in order to find and learn the secrets of the Desert Tortoise, a noble species native to the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts that, after thousands of years of evolution and survival, is “hurtling towards extinction,” primarily due to increased pollution, reduced habitats, and most significantly, a rapidly growing number of predatory ravens that prey on the tortoises' young.

Desperately seeking to find a long-term solution to protect the long-lasting species, Shields and his team at Hardshell Labs came up with an ambitious plan to use new tools and technology, including internet-controlled RC trucks, lasers, drone cameras and 3D printing, all while enacting a concept known as Crowd-Sourced Conservation.

Hardshell Labs launched the Tortoises for Tomorrow Kickstarter campaign in order to take a multi-faceted approach to conserving Tortoise populations. The campaign successfully closed with over $25,000 from 439 backers—but more than just asking for financial support, Shields is looking to the maker community for ongoing collaboration and 3D printing support.

One of the key aspects of the long-term solution is to create highly accurate, sensor-equipped 3D printed replica tortoise shells that will do double duty in terms of protecting baby tortoises from predatory ravens, who are attracted by, and like to linger in, nearby manmade landfills. On the one hand, the 3D printed tortoise shells will track and record the preying habits of the ravens, collecting invaluable data for desert biologists.

At the same time, the shells will be equipped with ‘3D printed lures’ that will deliver an unpleasant but non-lethal experience to ravens, for example in the form of a non-toxic repelling spray, that will actually modify ravens’ behavior over time by discouraging them from hunting baby tortoises in the first place.

Handpainted 3D printed tortoise shell

Autodesk has signed up as a key collaborator to help design and create the 3D printed tortoise shells. Using Autodesk Memento, they have been able to capture highly detailed images, which are then converted into realistic 3D printed models. Once hand-painted, the 3D printed shells are almost truly indistinguishable from real ones. Autodesk has also been working on designing the first run of 3D printed lures, however as part of the stretch goal, Hardshell Labs is actively encouraging participating makers to come up with their own 3D printed lure designs.

For a $20 donation, backers with a 3D printer will receive a digital file of the lure scan Autodesk has created along with a design guide to get their creative juices flowing (keeping in mind that the lure should deliver an unpleasant experience, but not one that will injure or exterminate the birds).  Those without a 3D printer can also contribute by opting to donate $35 to receive a 3D printed lure blank, to which they can add their own design ideas. The campaign organizers primarily need assistance in gathering ideas for lure propulsion, raven predation recording, raven marking, and aversive training.

In addition to the 3D printed replica shells, the Tortoises For Tomorrow campaign has a few other tricks up its sleeve to help preserve the tortoise population for as long as possible, while also getting as many humans involved in the fight for their lives. “I have spent 35 years in the field studying these venerable creatures and through that time their numbers have been plummeting,” said Shields. “As they get rare the chance for people to connect when them shrinks and with it the chance for others to come to care deeply about them.”

Thus, to give people the opportunity to learn about and connect to Desert Tortoises, Shields envisioned a video game for children to play online in which they control a rover that follows around the creatures in their daily lives. The tortoise-saving twist? The rover they are controlling is 100% real.

Known as the Guardian Angel Rover, the camera-equipped RC vehicle will move at the same speed as tortoises so as not to disturb them, however it will deter and obstruct ravens from making a meal out of the little guys.

So far, the $25,000 raised throughout the Kickstarter campaign has gone towards the development and improvement of the Guardian Angel Rover, equipping it with softer and safer tires, weather-proofed electronics, and in the near future, installing VR systems available for aerial drones as the camera system.

“It is tremendously exciting to apply the many gizmos we humans create to the task of forging an emotional and joyful connection between people and planet.,” said Sheilds. “One of the most thrilling aspects of my Hardshell journey has been witnessing the great outpouring of time and talent from dozens of thoughtful collaborators. The funds generated by this Kickstarter will be vital to progress but at least as important will be the growth in the number of people involved in the effort.”

Though Hardshell’s effort is currently focused on protecting the Desert Tortoise from extinction, the company does plan to extend its reach to other species as it continues to develop and refine its 3D printing and other technologies, and to grow the concept of crowd-sourced conservation. For now, we’re just happy to imagine a future where 3D printing will give even more tortoises the chance to live longer, healthier and safer lives.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Michael D. Austin wrote at 1/16/2016 3:15:11 AM:

Nice article, Kira, thanks. I'm planning to visit the Nederlands this year and it would be fun to talk with you in person. If you're in the San Francisco Bay area please look me up? If there's anything you want, please let us know. ~ Michael Austin, CEO, Hardshell Labs

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