Sep 15, 2017 | By Julia

Think 3D printing is for the birds? Think again. Last week Autodesk unveiled a bold new undertaking to save South Africa’s endangered tortoise population by way of 3D printed replicas. Currently one of the most at-risk tortoise species in the world, South Africa’s fledgling geometric tortoise would be the main beneficiary, and with good reason. Facing a slew of predators and environmental degradation, newborn turtles have the odds stacked against them from the moment their eggs hatch. But 3D printing could provide a viable lifeline: the affectionately-named “techno tortoises,” featuring 3D printed, hand-painted shells, could act as decoys for predators, and effectively give these baby tortoises another stab at life.

Architect Tatjana Dzambazova showcased the project at the Autodesk University South Africa Conference last week in Capetown, but the techno tortoise initiative first began in California. For almost 40 years, US desert biologist Tim Shields studied the endangered species of California’s Desert Tortoise. With shells not yet developed to withstand penetration from ravens and other predators, these baby tortoises were hardpressed to survive. Determined to find a solution, Shields founded Hardshell Labs, and subsequently reached out to Autodesk and Canadian 3D design company Think2Thing.

Through photogrammy, the use of photography to map out and survey objects, Autodesk developed specialized 3D designs of the Desert Tortoise’s shell, which were then sent off to Think2Thing to be 3D printed in plastic. Shield’s techno tortoise project was broken down into several phases, and put into action.

a 3D printed tortoise shell

First faced with the task of testing whether the 3D printed shells would in fact lure in predators, Shields and his team began the first step of the project, strategically placing cameras near the decoys to see if the ravens would take the bait. Phase One of the 3D printing experiment proved to be successful, as the tortoise predators were diverted away from the newborn tortoises, instead attacking the 3D printed techno tortoises.

Now in Phase Two, Shields’ project is exploring new ways to prevent the ravens from attacking the tortoises. One possibility involves placing pressure sensors on top of the 3D printed shell, so that when the raven attacks, the sensor would be triggered to release pepper spray. The pepper spray isn’t dangerous to the raven, clarifies an Autodesk architect. Rather, it would simply teach the predator not to attack the tortoise. “After being sprayed three times, if it really is an intelligent bird, it will ditch the tortoise,” she says.

Another promising idea to re-condition the ravens involves filling the 3D printed shell with a substance that would deter the ravens, such as grapefruit juice concentrate. Since the 3D printed shell maintains the same hardness and thickness as an organic shell, it would break just as a real shell would, exposing the raven to the undesirable concentrate.

a 3D printed geometric tortoise shell (left) and desert tortoise shell (right)

South African zoologist and tortoise conservationist Professor Margaretha Hofmeyr found out about Shields’ experiment in California, and became interested in applying a similar initiative to the geometric tortoise, a native species to South Africa. Hofmeyr was introduced to Autodesk architect Dzambazova, who photographed the South African tortoise and began developing a prototype.

The prototypes were first shown at the Autodesk University conference last week, and are about to be delivered to zoologists. As the first test run, Dzambazova emphasized to conference participants that the 3D printed shells still require some fine-tuning. In the future, the replicas will look even more life-like, she said.

Already off to a good start, Dzambazova’s prototypes were printed in full colour complete with UV protection to avoid fading. The first shells will be tested in South Africa this week, amongst predators such as mongooses.

To learn more about the ongoing techno turtle project, check out Hard Shell Labs.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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