Engineering students test “Elefence” prototypes in South Africa

Campbell Engineering sent a senior design team across the globe this month to test prototypes they presented at December’s Conceptual Design Review.

Sponsored by the Army Research Laboratory, students Anne Elise Bolton, D’Anna Dininny, Austyn May, Daniel Taylor, Michael Williams spent fall semester brainstorming to solve an unorthodox problem: how to keep curious elephants from venturing into unprotected wildlife zones in South Africa. This semester, their challenge is to perfect their design into a fully-functional, portable and humane product.

Four out of the team of five (Taylor stayed at home with his 39 weeks-pregnant wife) spent their seven-day trip to South Africa building and rebuilding model after model of their prototype to deter elephants from entering communities and poaching zones. They often improvised as they encountered difficulties in the from of ant hills on their construction site, tool malfunctions and supply delays, but ultimately narrowed down their plans to one.

They describe this design as  “legos for elephants,” an uneven surface of concrete pyramids with protruding rebar that will deter the elephants from crossing particular areas of ground. Video of their tests shows an elephant prodding a rectangular field of lumpy terrain with a giant foot, feeling around for a place to find purchase on the unstable stretch of land. In some cases, the elephant was able to find a space to set one foot— and with a three meter stride to help it cross two meters of the terrain, one foot is all it took to propel the elephant over the barrier. However, certain configurations of the pyramid block design were effective. 

“I wouldn’t call the tests a 100 percent success, but they certainly weren’t a failure,” said D’Anna Dininny. “We stopped the elephants, now we need to adapt the design to let other animals in and out. Farmers need to be able to herd cattle over the barriers, and it needs to allow other animals like giraffes to pass through.”

The students’ resources were somewhat different in Bela Bela, South Africa than in the U.S. When building stateside, the team used a concrete mixer and molds, but it was too expensive to get those tools abroad. Instead, they hired a laborer to mix the concrete for them by hand — which turned out even smoother than machine-mixed concrete — and dug holes in the ground to use as concrete molds. With time and more trial and error, the team hopes to perfect their spacing and create a fail-proof barrier. 

“We couldn’t always do the optimal thing that we knew would be best considering the amount of time we had, but we came up with other options moving forward. The issues with tools and materials could be better controlled with more time,” said Michael Williams. “Being able to test on the ground in Africa with an actual elephant was not only an incredible experience, it helped us plan better for how to create a real product.”

Now, the team is brainstorming other configurations to test, revising their plans based on their new knowledge of elephant behavior and the resources availble in Africa. Their Army Research Lab contact described them as the most efficient group of students to work on the project, and the students hope for an invitation to return for more testing soon.