Thursday, 22 January 2015

Elephant No. 111: Solar-Powered Robot Elephant

I came across this strange little kit in the dollar store last week, and thought I might be able to adapt it to make an elephant. I am anything but mechanical, but I was game to try. It was only three dollars, so I didn't really care if it was a bust.

This is what the kit comes with.

The instructions have really small diagrams and very little explanation, so I found just looking at them a bit daunting. I can put an IKEA anything together without instructions, but wires and stuff intimidate me.

I began by putting together the "gear box" followed by the "solar module". It was very straightforward until I got to the part about attaching the wire leads. I'm used to serious wiring with either soldering or wire connectors, so I couldn't figure it out at all. I took a magnifying glass to the diagrams, but it didn't help. Finally I realized that the wires simply get slotted into the coils of the springs. Seems like a very insecure electrical connection to me, but what do I know about solar-powered dollar-store robots?

I decided to follow the instructions for "Solar Puppy". It was the one that looked the most like an elephant (i.e., it had a head and four legs), and when I bought the kit, I had noted places where I could add foam pieces to make it look more elephantine.

I began by assembling Solar Puppy.

To transform it onto an elephant, I took a pack of craft foam from the dollar store, and cut out a pair of ears and a trunk.

I slotted the ears into the sides of the solar module, making a little fold in the middle so that I could make them curve forward or back—or both, in this case.

I glued the trunk to the front with a strip of double-sided glue tape.

I also cut and attached a pair of tusks.

Because elephant tails are not as fat as the tail for Solar Puppy, I cut another piece of foam, poked a hole in it,  and attached it in place of the plastic piece.

I finished it by adding a crown of gold glitter foam—because elephants should wear crowns if they possibly can—and a couple of brown foam dots for eyes.

Because this is solar, of course, it needed sunlight before it would work. I stuck it in a sunny window (well, as sunny as it can be on a wintry Ottawa day) for about an hour. And then another hour. It's clearly not the most sensitive solar panel in the world.

There's no on/off switch, so if you put it in a window, put it somewhere it won't fall off when it begins to move.

It doesn't do much other than spin its tail around, and even that was rather underwhelming. But it was simple to make (once I figured out the wiring), and in the end, it's weirdly cute.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In many areas where elephants roam free, farmers often erect electric fencing to keep animals away from crops and settlements. Sadly, electric fencing often electrocutes wildlife, killing everything from lions and tigers to large animals such as rhinos and elephants.

Enter solar fencing. Unlike electric fences, which use high voltage, solar fencing gives animals a brief but harmless shock. Instead of killing or incapacitating an elephant or tiger, solar fencing teaches them to stay away through gentle negative reinforcement.

One of the most interesting uses of solar power in relation to elephants, however, is a research project in Namibia, powered entirely by the sun. Working at the Mushara waterhole in a remote corner of Etosha National Park, a team from Stanford University runs everything from cameras to fencing with the power of the sun.

Aerial view of solar-powered camp at Mushara, Namibia.
Source: Stanford University

Because there are no generators, vehicles or tourists, the team is able to quietly observe elephants and other wild animals at close quarters. Still and video cameras run on solar batteries, as does digital editing equipment. Solar panels power speakers that send low-frequency sounds to attract elephants. The panels also provide enough electricity to run a makeshift laboratory, as well as two refrigerators stocked with fresh meat, dairy products and beer.

And, to keep wildlife from wandering into the camp, researchers installed a solar-powered electric fence. Like other solar wildlife fences, the fencing gives animals a short, harmless shock to scare them away. As researcher Tim Rodwell said, "A lion tried to touch the fence in the far corner. He only tried it once."

For more on this story, please click here.

Elephant and antelope at waterhole, Etosha National Park, Namibia.
Photo: Stanton Newman
Source: jeffcetera

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