How a 3D printed egg could save endangered vultures

The story of the "Eggduino"
The International Centre for Birds of Prey has developed an artificial egg that senses things like heat, humidity and rotation to try and replicate the vulture's natural incubation process. (ICBP)

If you look up into the sky on a clear blue summer day, there's a good chance you'll see a black spot way up high, or if it's low enough, maybe a wide set of wings. Maybe it's circling some point (hopefully not too close by).

In North America, the turkey vulture is very common, and that's great for us. Vultures act as a sort of cleaning crew, eating anything that dies or is left behind by other animals. And while they're doing well here, in many parts of the world the situation for the vultures is much more dire.

Adam Bloch is a trustee at the International Centre for Birds of Prey in the UK. Adam says that vultures "...are now probably the most endangered group of birds in the world. In India we have seen a population drop of 99.9%., he says. The African vultures are facing similar problems. We've seen four species in the last couple of months go from 'least concern'' to 'critically endangered'."

"Vultures are really the only thing that take things like anthrax, plague, botuline, out of the environment" Adam says. "Without them, we're all in trouble. It's not going to be a problem that sticks to the country where these birds come from. Wherever we see epidemics, pandemics, whatever it is, I'm sure we're going to rue the day we let the vultures die out. If you take 50,000 vultures out the environment something has to fill the gap." At this point, Adam notes, in fact 40,000,000 vultures have now been killed. "...In the case of India [what has filled the gap has] been dogs. And these dogs carry rabies, they're biting people, and now lots and lots of people are dying. In fact, India is now the rabies capital of the world.

"We have a situation where the disappearance of the vultures is forcing us to do something about it, and in this case it's artificial incubation and breeding of vultures."

But Adam and the rest of the people with the International Centre for Birds of Prey are exactly the people you want addressing this problem. "We've hatched more species in this single location than any other single location in the world. I think we're up to 68 species of raptors now. We hatch everything from owls through to kites, vultures, eagles. I have to say, though, that I confess I'm completely biased towards the vultures. You can work with your owls, you can work with your eagles, and everything else, but actually if you want something that's highly intelligent, extremely sensitive, an amazing parent, clean, beautiful, it's vultures."

While humans have figured out how to hatch chickens on an industrial scale, hatching vultures isn't quite so easy. "The world knows a lot about chickens" Adam says. "Millions and million of chickens, in fact probably billions of chickens are hatched every year. Chickens have also been bred to hatch out very easily. Vulture eggs, you look at them wrong and they don't hatch. So we have to refine all elements of the process so we can get the rate of success much much higher."

To close this information gap, Adam teamed up with Bin Feng, the co-founder and CEO of a company called Microduino. They embarked on a project to build their own, very special vulture egg. Adam explains that "...the egg itself is an electronic device based round open-source technology for monitoring the incubation process."

Bin's Microduino is an open board computer, similar to the Arduino or Raspberry Pi, except much smaller.  "They are as small as a quarter, stackable with magnetic connectors. Each module has it's own function, like WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, amplifier, sensors, etc...." 

On the left, a vulture egg (which is a little bigger than a chicken egg) is seen with the Microduino modules inside. On the right, the ICBP's 3D printed replica "Eggduino". (ICBP)
"Initially they tried to use the Arduino board" Bin says, "however the Arduino board is simply too large to fit into the egg."

"We've been very, very lucky that Microduino stepped in" Adam says. "I was fumbling around a little bit. I've built quite a lot of prototypes, and bits and pieces to try and do this, but it was only when they stepped in and said 'we'll throw our resources at this for you' that we really starting getting something together that looks like an egg."

The sensors in the egg give the team data on just about everything you'd want to know if you're trying to hatch an egg. Adam lists off factors like "...acceleration, rotation, pitch, yaw, heading which allows us to see physically how the egg is turned so we can work out how often the parents are turning the egg round, how quickly they're turning it, and the forces involved in that. We also have an array of temperature sensors around the surface of the egg, which allow us to work out how much heat is being applied by the physical contact of the parent bird to the egg." All that data is sent out in a constant stream through a Bluetooth connection with a computer outside of the egg.

A newly hatched vulture. (ICBP)
While helping to bolster vulture populations is the goal of the project now, the Eggduino isn't limited to Adam's favourite bird. Bin says that "the success of this project means that we can actually transfer this same technology and use it to help save other species around the world."

"The whole point of this project is to make it open source" Adam says. "I kind of have a feeling that if you're doing something for conservation, where possible you should be doing open source. You should be giving back the information to allow somebody else to improve on what you've done. If we don't improve on it we're sitting still or probably going backwards."


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