Mine Safety and … Mating Elephants?
Richard Hammond Finds New Use for Professors’ Mine Safety Invention
LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 8, 2013 -- It’s a pretty safe bet that when Col. Jay Sullivan and Col. Jim Squire were designing a device to help rescue trapped miners, they never once thought about an elephant.
But in early June 2012, the two VMI professors found themselves surrounded by pachyderms in sub-Saharan Africa, in a BBC production, Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature, starring daredevil broadcast journalist Hammond, of Top Gear fame. The purpose of their journey was to demonstrate how their extremely low frequency seismic detector, or ELF-SD, could be used to replicate the way elephants communicate with one another over long distances.
What Sullivan, a professor of mechanical engineering, calls “the trip of a lifetime” began in February, when a researcher got in touch with the VMI duo to ask about the animal communication possibilities of the ELF-SD.
“The idea was to take a look at all sorts of cool animal abilities,” said Squire, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at VMI.
Squire and Sullivan had been inspired to create the ELF-SD after the Sago Mine disaster killed 12 coal miners in West Virginia in 2006. The two professors, along with then-Cadet Will Flathers ’08, sought to create a device that could send signals through solid rock, so people trapped hundreds of feet underground would have a way to communicate their whereabouts to the surface. The device was patented in 2010, and is now awaiting federal approval before commercial production can begin.
When Squire and Sullivan first heard from the show's producers, they were surprised, to say the least.
“We had no idea who Richard Hammond was because we don’t watch enough television, I guess, but he’s a big deal,” said Sullivan. “If you ask the cadets, they all know who is because they all watch his show [Top Gear].”
Sullivan continued, “We were thinking about miners, and all of a sudden somebody started talking about the seismic communication aspect of [the ELF-SD].” Squire explained that the TV show’s staff had found out about the ELF through a Web search on seismic signaling.
At first, Squire and Sullivan were asked to travel to Rosamond, Calif., to demonstrate the ELF-SD’s usefulness in the staged explosion of an abandoned gold mine. They made the trip over Easter weekend, and despite several setbacks, including the device itself being broken in transit and Squire’s laptop computer getting “fried” by the X-ray machine at the airport, they were able to demonstrate the ELF-SD’s ability to send signals through several hundred feet of rock.
Squire and Sullivan returned to Virginia after the gold mine episode was filmed, thinking that they had done their part for Hammond’s show. Two weeks later, they were invited to travel with Hammond and his team to Botswana, where they were to demonstrate that the ELF-SD could also be used to mimic the ultra low frequency waves that elephants use to communicate with one another. Elephants produce such waves in their vocalizations, and scientists believe that those waves can then be transmitted through the ground.
The weeks between receiving the invitation in April and departure in early June were spent packaging the ELF-SD for trans-Atlantic shipping and finding a company capable of shipping it. In the end, the producers of the show paid approximately $3,000 in shipping fees for the 140-pound device – and for a brief moment upon the device’s arrival in South Africa, it looked like they might have to pay more.
Sullivan explained that the ELF-SD got hung up in customs, with South African officials demanding payment of a fee before it could be released. “You get the feeling that you’re not in Kansas anymore,” said Sullivan.
For a moment, Sullivan and Squire didn’t know what would happen, but then a “fixer” – an employee of the wildlife filming company Afriscreen Films – simply demanded that the ELF-SD be freed, and the officials relented immediately.
“The fixers were rugged individuals,” said Sullivan. “They’re very smart people. They know how to get stuff done. They have to be.”
When Squire and Sullivan joined the ELF-SD in Botswana, after a journey that included a 14 ½-hour flight from New York City to Johannesburg, they found a luxurious camp in the heart of the African bush – one that had already gained fame as a favorite getaway of Princes William and Harry of Great Britain.
Camp Meno a Kwena, which translates into “Teeth of the Crocodile,” boasted tents that were a far cry from those Americans might remember from summer camp – these had real beds with linens, rugs on the floor, and even shaving stands, used each morning after an African servant supplied hot water. Visitors took showers outdoors, after servants had filled 10-gallon bags with hot water. Solar lights provided illumination.
“It really looked like something out of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” said Squire of the camp. He added that the noise of animals, such as elephants, hippos, and zebras coming to drink in the nearby Boteti River, was a constant backdrop.
“It felt very much like an 1890s safari adventure,” added Sullivan. He recalls an abundance of delicious food, plus French press coffee. There were even a few phone calls home, thanks to the iPhones carried by the British film crew.
Working in the field meant spending several hours setting up the ELF-SD and then waiting for elephants to show up. The episode of Miracles of Nature featuring the ELF-SD, which is now available on YouTube, shows a herd of bull elephants doing a rather abrupt U-turn in the device’s direction when the ELF-SD was turned on and set to the frequency of a female elephant. Squire and Sullivan, though, bring a scientist’s skepticism to the behavior observed.
“It certainly seemed like they did [respond to the ELF-SD’s] signals,” said Squire. “But the jury’s still out for me. It did seem like it was happening more often than chance would dictate.”
For his part, Sullivan said he’d like to see a more controlled experiment. “[The elephants] responded to it,” he said. “The question in my mind is, ‘Was it solely through the ground that they were feeling this?’” There’s always the possibility that they were hearing the ELF-SD’s frequencies as well as feeling them, he explained.
With their moment of televised fame behind them, the two professors and co-inventors have turned their attention to another one of their inventions: a robot designed to remove ticks from people’s yards and thereby stem the spread of Lyme disease. The “tick rover,” which was patented in 2006, is scheduled to be tested this spring at Old Dominion University, said Squire.
“We have ideas,” said Sullivan, referring to himself and Squire. “We always have ideas. …We’ve had a great association working with each other on different things. On a number of occasions, we’ve done work where we didn’t have any realistic expectation of being successful but we rallied and were able to fix things. … We’ve had a really good run here, knock on wood.”