Tortoises For Tomorrow High Tech Helps an Ancient Survivor

Written by respective author

With remotely controlled rovers we’ll give online helpers the tools to have great fun while helping the threatened desert tortoise.

by Tim Shields

Hardshell Labs is built around a vision of connecting people with Nature using the latest tools technology has to offer. We intend to provide portals to living creatures to massive numbers of folks who would otherwise have little opportunity to get to know the natural world. We will make games of conservation work, applying the power of play to changing the relationship of humans to other Earthlings. And we will start with the Desert Tortoise, a charismatic and seriously threatened species that can use all the friends it can get. One way to do that is to put the tortoise on humanity’s screens, creating a way for people to get to know them. The Guardian Angel Rover is the device that will connect us with the world of the Desert Tortoise.

The money we raise through this campaign will go to refining the Guardian Angel Rover. This is a modified radio controlled rock 1/10 scale rock crawler. We have made it an Internet connected, camera equipped tortoise observation device intended to accompany tortoises as they move through their world. It will generate valuable data on the animals but its main function is to bring the desert tortoise to our screens, to show people an amazing creature living its life.

Kickstarter funds will help move the rover along the path from prototype to a version ready for widespread use by an online community of supporters. Our design philosophy is to use existing technology to find the most cost effective solution. Your money will pay for equipment, and design and testing by our engineers. We use off-the-shelf equipment where possible with intelligently designed tweaks and novel software to find a combination that works well in the field to provide imagery of live tortoises and the capacity to act to protect them when necessary. How far we get along this path will depend on the response to the campaign but at this stage we must experiment boldly to find the ideal configuration of the rover.

Field Test on Rover with Tortoise
Field Test on Rover with Tortoise

Specifically we will develop the following systems:

Video Cameras – The rover will have two video cameras, one for the driver, the other for high resolution tortoise observation. We will experiment with a variety of cameras and settings to find the proper balance between picture quality, equipment cost and operational expense .

Pan-tilt-zoom Capacity – Ideally the observation camera will have full pan-tilt-zoom capability but there are many ways to approach this challenge. We are currently using a commercial pan and tilt gimbal. We will spend resources on determining the best configuration. Zoom ability will depend on the cameras used but ultimately will allow us to get unprecedented views of tortoises.

Remote Connection– Our current wireless connection uses a standard radio control transmitter whose commands are translated to Internet compatible wifi signals and then delivered to the rover. One particular concern is the issue of latency, the delay between the event in the field and its display on the user’s screen. We have already experimented with several systems and will spend Kickstarter funds to delve further into this matter. Current video conferencing programs may help us minimize latency.

User Interface and Controls– How will the team of users, one driving and one operating the camera, perceive the desert as they follow tortoises through it? What controls will they use? These are crucial questions and we will use some funds in pursuing answers to them.

Tortoise Safety– We will experiment with rover features such as tire size and softness and speed governors  as well as operation protocols to insure the safety of tortoises and other wildlife as we operate around them. These could include proximity limiting equipment and/or monitoring of driver behavior by a third party with override ability (remember driver training?). All work supported by the Kickstarter will occur in closely controlled conditions.

Rover and Tortoise Test
Rover and Tortoise Test

Documenting the Tests– Our early tests will be confined to using captive tortoises in controlled circumstances. The step to having a rover interacting with wild tortoises will depend on proving to regulators and others that tortoises will be safe in the company of the rover. We will use campaign funds to thoroughly document our tests for this purpose. This will involve capturing and storing the video generated by the rover.

Juvenile Tortoise Shell: Death by Raven Predation
Juvenile Tortoise Shell: Death by Raven Predation

The mere presence of the rover in the company of a juvenile tortoise is likely to confer protection from ravens on the tortoises. We also intend to equip the rovers with tools to repel ravens attacking juvenile tortoises. At that point the operators will indeed become “guardian angels”, able to drive the birds away from vulnerable young tortoises, members of a threatened species under assault from a rapidly growing raven population.

Guardian Angels will help to protect these juvenile tortoises
Guardian Angels will help to protect these juvenile tortoises

Ultimately, tools such as the Guardian Angel Rover will be used in a brand new sort of online game, one in which players are active conservationists. In this way Hardshell Labs will tap the spirit of play central to human nature for the good of all Nature. We are pioneering a form of play that promises to reconnect us with the root of our existence and in so doing generate joy. This change will revitalize the essential human endeavor of learning how to live in harmony with that which keeps us alive physically and spiritually.

Risks and challenges

Refining the Guardian Angel Rover:
Readying it for wider use and exposure. Adapting prototypes for uses that simultaneously generate enjoyment and do measurable good while being capable of surviving the rigors of the real world will present technological and design challenges.

Support from designers of hardware, software and social systems will be necessary for long-term success. Our collaborations with David Lang of Open ROV and Roy Haggard of Thinking Through the Box provide a template for how we will proceed on this point.

Crowd Sourcing:
The opportunity we present to a world starved for contact with Nature will be avidly received. The challenge will be how to include as many people as possible as participants during a time when the number of devices will be limited will require careful consideration.

Initially, many people will share the feeds from a small number of rovers.

Working with threatened and endangered species:
This will require patient pursuit of the necessary permits.

Using captive tortoises in a controlled circumstance is a way to generate evidence of our ability to operate safely and ultimately for the benefit of wild tortoises. Then we can do the same with other species in the future.

Our Team, Our Strongest Asset:
The strength of the team that has coalesced around Hardshell Labs and our idea of Crowd Sourced Conservation is our most important asset and the one that will help us navigate the challenges inherent in trying something new. We are going to be featuring team members in a number of posts to come.

Here are a few of them:
Roy Haggard and Chris Smith- the engineers on the Guardian Angel Rover. Roy has long experience with mechanical engineering at the highest level (like Mars landings). Chris is the electronics whiz that is programming the vehicle.
Matt Huffine- the Science Lead at Lewis Center for Education Research (LCER), Apple Valley, CA. We are planning field tests at LCER and are involving middle and high school students there in the work. Matt is a master teacher and visionary and our ambassador to the education world.
Andrea Barrica- Entrepreneur-in-Residence at 500 Startups is one of our indispensable business coaches and offers sage advice every time we need it.
Rose Spinelli- Founder of The Crowdfundamentals. Our expert on crowdfunding and one of the main reasons for the initial success of the campaign.
Todd Sali- Sandbox LA. An award winning filmmaker working with us to present our story to the world. You will see his work often in Hardshell’s future.
David Lang- Co-founder Open ROV. David’s company is pioneering submersible, remotely operated vehicles and has shared his wisdom, insight and amazing connections to help us along in many, many ways.

Our Goal :
We will tackle the inevitable setbacks with a spirit of discovery and by applying the patience and persistence that typifies the desert tortoise. We have a powerful web of collaborators and supporters attracted to the good idea at the heart of Hardshell: Crowd Sourced Conservation. We anticipate that this Kickstarter will make us even stronger for the connections it will forge.


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