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Student gopher tortoise research camera digs deep

spring 2012 gopher

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 species.


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.”