It’s Raining Treats! Engineers Meet Elephants in Zoo-Sponsored Project

Feb. 24, 2022

Semba and Penzi.png

Semba and Penzi, a mother and baby elephant, in their zoo habitat.
Reid Park Zoo elephants Semba and Penzi in their habitat.

Project Title: Elephant Pellet Dispersal Unit

Team 22034 Members:

Tyler Vincent Gross, mechanical engineering

Devin Anthony Johnson, electrical and computer engineering

Alejandra Munoz Ruiz, project procurement lead, industrial engineering

Angel Ernesto Rodriguez de San Miguel Bermud, electrical and computer engineering

Gabriella Monique Vindiola, project leader, mechanical engineering

Sponsor: Reid Park Zoo

Reid Park Zoo workers were so pleased with last year’s two capstone projects supported by the Craig M. Berge Community Project Fund, they organized patron funding for two more in 2021-2022. One group of engineering seniors is creating a snack delivery system for elephants.

For its capstone project, Team 22034 is building a machine that automatically shoots out treats into the elephant habitat at set times throughout the day. Zookeepers can also operate the machine remotely to dispense treats at will.

“Right now, the zookeepers walk along the edges and throw treats in the habitat, but this invention will hopefully be able to distribute treats to different areas of the habitat that the zookeepers can’t reach, helping to foster an environment where the elephants can search for food and pick it up themselves,” said Gabriella Vindiola, a mechanical engineering major and project leader.

Stephanie Norton, an animal welfare specialist at the zoo and the team’s sponsor advisor, said the zoo wants to encourage the animals to explore different areas of their habitat and move away from associating mealtime with humans.

The team has overcome several challenges. Using weatherproof materials – to combat Tucson’s summer sun and the fact that the machine itself generates heat – took up a chunk of the $4,000 budget, so the students couldn’t afford to create a device with two dispensing mechanisms to shoot treats in multiple directions. Instead, they made a rotating system.

“We selected 304 stainless steel for the electronic components in the launcher itself, and that’s got very good corrosion resistance. It’s kind of the industry standard,” said mechanical engineering major Tyler Gross.

Many students complete capstone projects at engineering companies, such as Honeywell or Raytheon, where sponsor advisors are well-versed in engineering project language. Working with zookeepers and animal welfare specialists has helped the students learn how to translate technical concepts into everyday language, and vice versa. For example, the zoo requested that the device not be too loud, so as not to disturb the animals, and the students had to determine a sound decibel cap. The zoo also asked that the machine dispense pellets with enough force for wide distribution, but not so much that the pellets could hurt the elephants. That meant trying out spring-powered and compressed air dispensers and testing a prototype in the habitat to make sure it didn’t bother the elephants.

“You think about engineering, and there’s so much in it,” Gross said. “There are a lot of gaps in my knowledge that are made up for by the other members of my team, so that’s been helpful. And, from a mechanical standpoint, I feel like I’ve applied most of the mechanics that I’ve learned in my courses to this project.”

The students were enthusiastic about working on a local project for animals – not to mention being admitted to the elephant habitat.

“I’m an international student, and every summer when I was a little girl, we would come here and we went to the zoo,” said industrial engineering major and project procurement lead Alejandra Ruiz. “So, it was kind of something I knew about, and I was excited. Hopefully when I go to the zoo in the future, I’ll see the work we did.”

The pellet dispenser is something the zookeepers have been wanting for years, but there isn’t one on the market that works with such large pellets and distributes them over a wide enough area, Norton explained. She envisions it as a solution that can be adapted for other zoos and various animal habitats.

For the second zoo project, Team 22033 is creating a remote activated enrichment dispersal unit for the Andean bear habitat.

This isn’t the first time the zoo has been involved with the capstone program. In 2020-2021, one team created a sensor-driven enrichment system so animals could do things like turn on misters and video displays themselves. Another created an augmented reality app for visitors to learn about the flamingos.

“Both years have been really fun, and I’ve learned a ton from the students and the advisers,” Norton said. “It’s really cool, because I feel like in the zoo field, we have all these crazy ideas, but we don’t have the skills to do a lot of these things. This really helps us do some of those dream projects.”

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