Student Mechatronics Project Entertains, Feeds Elephants

August 26, 2009

2 Min Read
Student Mechatronics Project Entertains, Feeds Elephants

Rohan Jhunjhunwala has a passion for robotics and technology, but his current project isn’t part of a school assignment. He plans to build a mechatronic entertainment system for elephants at the Oregon Zoo. Dale Yocum, Rohan’s mentor, noted he’s a highly motivated student who likes to make things happen.

Students from Portland State University built the zoo’s original robotics system that comprised two sensors and a conveyor belt, but the undocumented system fell into disrepair. So, three other students from the Catlin Gabel School developed a way to feed the elephants, and Rohan started to design a mechanism to exercise and entertain them–the elephants, not the other students!


My robot will include three main parts, said Rohan. First, an ‘apple launcher’ will hurl apples into the elephant pen. Second, sensors will determine when an elephant has run to each side of the pen, so they can get their food. Third, a piano will let an elephant play a tune and get a food reward–a bundle of hay or an apple. Rohan plans to use capacitive sensors to create a four-note keyboard on a brick wall so the elephants can play a tune. The sound will come from a loudspeaker behind the wall and if an elephant plays the right sequence of notes using its trunk, it gets a food reward. That’s the most ambitious part of the project.

Rohan decided an R1000 computer from Sealevel Systems with a 420S digital I/O module would give him the form-C relays and more than eight optically isolated inputs needed for the project. Ben O’Hanlan, Sealevel’s vice president of business development said, “What impressed me about Rohan’s request was his passion for the project.” And, he noted with a grin, “It’s nice to help improve life for elephants, too.”

During the summer, Rohan spent time coding and building, and hopes to have an operating prototype in the fall. He’ll complete the final design before his school’s science fair in March. Rohan belongs to “The Flaming Chickens,” (Team 1540), a group of students from the Catlin Gabel School’s Robotics Society in Portland, Oregon. To learn more or see team activities, visit: Imagine what he and kids like him will do in college and in their careers.

Rohan, we look forward to photos of the zoo project. –Jon Titus

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