It might seem a little rude
to just barge into someone’s home.
But a pair of University of
North Florida students has designed a robotic research device that can rumble
down into gopher tortoise habitats and help track the population of the protected
Biology major Alexandra
Legeza worked in tandem with engineering graduate Kevin Nguyen to design a
mobile rover with cameras that can be used to delve into deep burrows and relay
images to a researcher’s laptop.
The design is simple but
intuitive — a basic video game controller handles the movement, and the robot’s
rough tracks are capable of pushing it over tough terrain.
UNF engineering assistant
professor Dr. Alan Harris, who helped the students in their pursuit of a
Transformational Learning Opportunity grant, advised on the design.
The robot was funded
through a $4,000 grant from UNF’s Environmental Center, Harris said.
Legeza said the robot
offers a less invasive way of gauging the species’ population. While it might
be a little intrusive to gopher tortoises resting snugly in their burrows, the
old ways of counting tortoises in burrows usually involved trapping them or
negatively impacting their habitat.
“It’s way less hurtful to
the tortoises this way,” she said.
UNF biology professor Dr. Joe
Butler, who assisted Legeza with her research, said there’s a real need for
gopher tortoise population numbers because of years of incorrect estimates.
He said researchers would often
count the burrows they spotted and extrapolate how many tortoises were present
using an old formula. It was an imprecise measure at best, and it led to
overestimates of the population, he said.
“There are far fewer than
what was once thought,” Butler said. “And that’s why this robot is important,
because it gives researchers the ability to get a far more accurate reflection
of the total population.”
Legeza has already taken
the robot down close to a fourth of the Sawmill Slough Preserve’s estimated 400
burrows. UNF’s Wildlife Sanctuary stretches about 1,300 acres and is home to
dozens of native flora and fauna.
Legeza said working in the
natural beauty of UNF’s Wildlife Sanctuary was a major boon for her research.
She said she enjoys hiking the nature trails with her robotic helper in tow.
“There aren’t many
universities that can say their campus is the laboratory, but at UNF, all you
need to study biology is out here,” she said. “It’s a major advantage for those
of us who really want to get out in the field and get that experience under our
belts. We don’t even have to leave campus.”
Her partner in the project,
Nguyen, is no stranger to taking his classroom training and applying it to
real-world projects. He worked with two other UNF students last year in the creation
of a wristwatch that monitors heart-rate variability at the request of a famed
internal medicine doctor from New Hampshire.
He said the experience
gained from doing work that transcends the classroom was the most important
aspect of his time at UNF.
“Our professors were always
pushing us to think creatively and do things that could be useful outside the
classroom,” Nguyen said. “We were never confined. And that kind of work looks
good to employers. We’re not doing things for a professor that’ll never see the
light of day. We’re doing work for customers, basically. That’s practical,
real-world experience right there.”