Student Builds Robotics System for Oregon Zoo Elephants

August 18, 2009

Rohan Jhunjhunwala is passionate about robotics and technology. As a student at the Catlin Gabel School in Portland, Oregon, Jhunjhunwala, a mechanical engineering leader on the school’s competitive robotics society, was approached to build a robotics system for the elephants at the Oregon Zoo.

But his current project isn’t part of a school assignment. Dale Yocum, Jhunjhunwala’s mentor, notes that “Rohan’s not required to do this as a junior. He’s just a highly motivated student who likes to make things happen. He’s also interested in having a compelling science fair project and interested in getting visibility for our robotics team. Our FIRST robotics team is considered among the very best in the state partially because of the willingness of our students to go above and beyond.”

The original robotics system, consisting of two sensors and a conveyor belt, was built by students from Portland State University. The undocumented system eventually fell into disrepair, and three other students from the Catlin Gabel School created a solution for the feeding aspect of the project, leaving Jhunjhunwala to develop a mechanism for exercising and entertaining the elephants.

According to Yocum, “Currently, it’s very much a one-of-a-kind prototype. It’s not something that can be replicated at other zoos, and we are unable to make changes to it since we don’t have the source code.”

“My robot will consist of three main parts,” said Jhunjhunwala. “The first is the apple launcher, which will launch apples into the elephant pen. The second is the motion sensors. These will make the elephant run to each side of the pen to get their food. The third is by far the most ambitious, and the most beneficial, should it work. It is an elephant piano. Using capacitive sensors, I will build a four-key keyboard on a brick wall that the elephants can play. The sound will come from a loudspeaker behind the wall. If the elephant plays the right sequence of notes using its trunk, it will be rewarded in the form of a bundle of hay or an apple.”

Before he could begin to build the robotics system, Jhunjhunwala assembled a wish list of parts. He found Sealevel Systems through Internet research and from talks with his mentor, Dale Yocum, who had “known about Sealevel by reputation for years.” After contacting Bryan Buchanan in Sealevel’s technical support division, Jhunjhunwala found the R1000 computer with a 420S digital I/O module to be a perfect fit for the controller element of his project. According to Buchanan, “He also wanted something small and mountable. The 420 would provide the IO solution for him since he needed Form C relays and more than eight optically isolated inputs. Both modules mount together and would be pleasing aesthetically and functionally.”

Ben O’Hanlan, Sealevel’s vice president of business development said, “What impressed me about Rohan’s request was his passion for the project. Whether it is through our own design efforts or supporting the efforts of customers, this company actively supports anyone and everyone passionate about utilizing high quality, reliable computing and I/O products for any type of engineering endeavor. Additionally, Sealevel places great value in improving the quality of life for our employees and our community.” O’Hanlan joked that through Rohan’s efforts, “It’s nice to be able to claim that we’re improving the quality of life for elephants as well.”

With funding secured for his apple launcher, Sealevel supplied two products to help Jhunjhunwala build his robot. He hopes that his system can be replicated at other locations. With help from the Sealevel products, he can write Java code to provide the zookeepers a visual interface with better information about how the system is working and let them change the challenges given to the elephants.

Jhunjhunwala is currently coding and building intensively over the summer and hopes to have things operational in prototype form in the fall. The final product will be completed in time for his school’s science fair in March.

About Team 1540
Team 1540, a group of students from the Catlin Gabel School’s Robotics Society in Portland, Oregon, competes annually in the FIRST robotics competition. Now in their fourth year of competition, the award-winning group now has 23 members who make up the Software, Fabrication, Control Systems, Marketing and Animation departments of the club. To learn more, visit the