The history of science and exploration is a Maker story. Our tools, and the people who shape them, have always determined the questions we ask, the horizons we pursue, and the answers we discover. From microscopes to telescopes, submarines to spaceships, it’s always taken a Maker (or team of Makers) to push the limits of what we know.
Over the past century, though, exploration became inaccessible. A distinction between “professional” and “amateur” science created a barrier where one had never existed. Historically, curiosity was pursued by those who felt inspired, and they built whatever they needed to get the job done. However, well-meaning and effective systems — federal grant funding, conferences, and journals — have made the pursuit of knowledge an exclusive activity for those in the ivory towers.
Over the past few years, thanks to the Maker Movement, the tools for science, exploration, and conservation have become more powerful and more obtainable. Cheap components, open standards, and connected enthusiasm are driving Makers to reinvent and reimagine the process of discovery.
The professional science community is beginning to sit up and take notice. They don’t see it as a threat, but an opportunity. Maker-style science is not replacing any traditional efforts, it’s just more: experiments, expeditions, and possibilities. It’s enabling a whole new genre of question-askers. It’s both surprising and thrilling.
We’ve connected with a new generation of Maker-explorers to hear their stories and get inspired by their projects. Around the world, amazing science is happening. Makers are reclaiming their place as explorers of the universe.
Laser Tag for Tortoises
Tim Shields, Hardshell Labs
A field biologist for the Bureau of Land Management, Tim Shields had become frustrated with the ravens that were decimating the desert tortoises he had spent his life studying in the Mojave Desert.
Given the chance, a raven will peck a hole in the shell of a young tortoise and eat it. As people moved into and around the Mojave, they modified the environment, bringing more water, shade, roosts, and food. The ravens’ numbers grew — a 1,000% increase from 1975 to 1995 — and the tortoise population plummeted. Shields responded with high-tech measures and started chasing off ravens with powerful laser pointers.
But even the most dedicated field biologist can’t stand in the desert shining lasers at ravens for weeks. So Shields’ endeavor evolved into building laser-equipped buggies to protect his favorite species. So far, it’s working.
“We’re currently using ground-based rovers to observe desert tortoises without disturbing them, and equipping them with raven repulsion devices to allow operators to drive these predators away from vulnerable juvenile tortoises,” says Shields. He is even working on ways to gamify the project, which is licensed partially under Creative Commons, so remote operators can control the lasers. “Our goal is to engage active conservationists who currently lack the capacity to witness the wonders of the natural world or to do work to intervene ecologically,” he says.
Erika Bergman, Girls Underwater Robot Camps
Submarine pilot and National Geographic Young Explorer Erika Bergman is helping inspire the next generation of researchers and scientists. She is the co-founder of the Girls Engineering and Exploration Counselors, which organizes the Girls Underwater Robot Camps to provide teenage girls engineering and robotics experience.
Since 2014, Bergman’s team has run workshops, speaking engagements, and pilot camps. The camps themselves focus around the construction of an OpenROV submersible, followed by planning and running a micro-expedition in the field. The completed craft are then made available for school projects and expeditions.
Bergman put herself through college as a marine diesel mechanic and steam boat fireman, and taught herself to pilot a submarine on the job in 2010. She now drives various research vessels, including a five-person sub that is capable of diving to 300 meters. It’s those experiences that have motivated her outreach endeavors.
“I envisioned the impact of bringing young women along on expeditions, but I couldn’t physically take girls with me on oceanographic research ships,” she explains. “I could however bring something they were deeply connected to, something they had built with their own hands that would connect future ocean explorers. Building an underwater robot together was an opportunity to deliver their spirit and hard work into the hands of other girls across continents.”
Andrew Quitmeyer and Hannah Perner-Wilson, Hiking Hacks
While on a mission to find a rumored ant species in Madagascar, Andrew Quitmeyer and Hannah Perner-Wilson needed a place to put together a sensor triggered by ants, so they built a Makerspace in a tent.
The trip was one of a series of Hiking Hacks, which take Quitmeyer and Perner-Wilson around the world, building and sharing tools and sensors that are specialized to the ecosystem where they’re deployed. In Madagascar, they used new technology to document and disseminate biological field research and projects (the ant sensor and other projects are up on Instructables). That’s tricky in remote locations, so they worked to build a field-friendly, mobile “hacking center” that acts as a communal design space and also protects equipment from the elements.
“I realized that when building technology designed for interacting with nature, it might make sense to build technology in nature,” says Quitmeyer, a digital media Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech.
If they can scale the Makerspace idea, it could help get more people building their tools in the places they’ll be used.
“The jungle is an amazing setting for building electronics,” says Perner-Wilson, who has a background in e-textiles and DIY electronics. “All the plants and animals growing and living around us were extremely useful building materials and inspiration for project ideas.”
Detecting Illegal Chainsaws
Topher White, Rainforest Connection
On an ecotourist jungle trek, Topher White had a startling encounter. “One day, our group was taken on a guided walking tour in the reserve, and within five minutes walk from the ranger’s headquarters, we came upon a group of illegal loggers,” he explains. “They fled upon our arrival, but the problem was evident: Even within relatively short distances, rangers had no real-time awareness of destructive activity in their reserve.”
White, a physicist and engineer, used that incident as inspiration to develop a device that repurposes old cellphones into rainforest monitoring systems. He launched a Kickstarter to build the systems, which resulted in one of the most successful conservation projects on the site. Now his resulting organization, Rainforest Connection, is placing the apparatus in forests worldwide.
One of the keys to the system is the encroachment of technology that it is fighting to protect the forest from. “I noticed that even in the jungle, bereft of electricity and perhaps a hundred miles from the nearest road, there was quite reliable cell service. And the populations there had come to rely upon it,” White says. Sensitive microphones wired to the phones listen for the sound waves of chainsaws or vehicle traffic, using the cellphone network to send a text message alert when detected. Solar panels attenuated to the speckles of sunlight that peek through the forest canopy keep batteries charged, and the arrays are placed high on trees to keep them above detection.
“It’s always an adventure,” White says. “Climbing 200-foot trees on a daily basis and backpacking through the jungle with Amazon warriors is hardly the type of work that I’d expected to be doing with a physics degree, but these days it makes total sense to me.”