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Robo Squirrel: Your Tax Dollars In Action

November 19 2012 by Kerry Kobashi

Robo Squirrel
A $390,000 rattlesnake and robot squirrel research project is held under scrutiny after a Oklahoma Senator puts it on his most wasteful list.

In The Beginning, There Were Rattlesnakes and Squirrels

Donald Owings was a psychology professor. He passed away recently and was considered an expert in animal behavior. He taught at the University of California, Davis which is one of the top veterinary schools in the nation.

One day out in the field doing research, Owings notices a unique phenomenon. He observes that when a squirrel is confronted by a rattlesnake, the squirrel puffs up its tail and wavers it from side to side.

In 2007, the Psychology and Mechanical/Aeronautical Engineering schools at University of California, Davis got together to do research on this matter. They used infrared cameras to study how snakes and squirrels interacted with one another. What they found was interesting. The squirrel's tail heated up during rattlesnake confrontation.

Rattlesnakes are known to have the ability to "see" in infrared when stalking their prey. That the California squirrel has a built in defense mechanism against rattlesnakes was a new discovery. For when the squirrel was pitted against a gopher snake (which has no infrared sensory abilities), the squirrel would swish its tail around, but it didn't emit high levels of heat. This suggest the idea that the California squirrel evolved and adapted to rattlesnakes by sending "signals".

The UC Davis Engineering group built a robotic squirrel to further study the phenomenon. They found that when the rattlesnake encountered the heated tail swishing robot, that it would become defensive, rather than predatory. Without the infrared tail (just the wagging), the rattlesnake would continue to be predatory.

Published Findings (2007)

Owings, Rundus (UC Davis graduate student), Joshi (UC Davis professor), et al would publish a scientific paper entitled "Ground Squirrels Use An Infrared Signal To Deter Rattlesnake Predation" (PDF) that discussed these findings.

This paper would describe in great detail that rattlesnakes and squirrels have a unique way of "communicating" among one another.

National Science Foundation Grant

Rulon Clark, a Biology Professor from San Diego State, and UC Davis Associate Professor Sanjay Joshi (the robotic guy who helped the 2007 team) filed an application asking for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. The NSF is a $7 billion dollar US Federal government agency that hands out grants in the name of science.

In 2010, the $390,000 grant was awarded. Today, it continues to run on your tax payer money until 2014.

RoboSquirrel On The Most Wasteful List

Recently Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn caused a stir when he decided to label the project as one of the most wasteful examples of government spending.

In his 200 page book, he lists 100 examples of the worst government spending for 2012. Everything from the US Department of Agriculture spending $300,000 to promote caviar to a $516,000 grant to develop a video game promoting Prom week.

Coburn has been an advocate of overhauling the NSF approval process.

But Where Does The Money Go?

When it comes to grants given to universities, from what I gather, it does not all go directly to the project. Half of the grant money is given to the university. Whats left goes to the students, teacher, and project.

While there seems to be a steep overhead coming from the universities managing the grant, you have to consider such costs from:

  1. Leased space
  2. Compliance and Auditors
  3. Payroll
  4. Legal services
  5. Public relations
  6. Others

In Robo Squirrel's case, the money goes to the San Diego State University Research Foundation. SDSURF is a non-profit organization that employs over 2,600 people and generates $160 million in grant and contract revenue.

Greg Block of SDSU Research, the non-profit university organization holding the grant, said that the funds are being used to help pay tuition for some 34 college students who are part of the program.

So why some may get caught up in the questioning of whether this is a wasteful project, the benefits are that you have students learning about robotics, writing software, and working with electronics. It is hands on applied learning and you don't get that just anywhere. The grant covers some of their college tuition. It may be not a lot, but enough to help them and their families out.

The grant money is also helping to fill jobs in your local community, the staff at SDSU Research for example. It helps keep faculty staff on board keeping them interested in their fields and allowing them to do further research.

Most importantly, it fuels creative thinking and feeds the intellectual passion.

About Kerry Kobashi

Kerry Kobashi picture

Kerry is the founder of KerryOnWorld. He lives in Silicon Valley.