Designers Craft Collars to Tame Lions, Costs

Ground Lab is bringing open source design to the animals and herdsmen of rural Africa with GPS tracking collars.

lion with tracking collar



We often think of design and hardware and software programming as a human endeavor. But the latest project for designers Benedetta Piantella and Justin Downs took them deep inside lions dens. Literally.

The two are co-founders of sustainable design group, Ground Lab, where they’re working with GPS tracking collars for animals, including some of Africa’s “problem lions”–those that regularly attack livestock. They’re being rigged with Ground Lab’s open-source tracking collars to both reduce livestock killing and also monitor when the lions approach communities where lion poachers are known to lurk.

The standout feature of Ground Lab’s designs is that they’re open-sourced, so conservationists and other supporters can scale monitoring for all sorts of critters–lions or cows they stalk. The adaptable guts of the system help clients save costs since each new use doesn’t require a new purchase of gear or software. The Ground Lab team’s development methodology is “very applicable to organizations and individuals who need a product that they can constantly modify and make small adjustments on themselves, in order to save time, money, and resources while advancing their progress,” Downs tells Fast Company. “Given the close ties conservationists experience between their research tools and their work, the ability to customize their technology without a lot of overhead or resource allocation is crucial to the technology they implement and ultimately to the quality of their research findings and their data.”

The Open Source Tracking Project provides real-time GPS tracking, data aggregation, and visualization tools for conservation research and other social applications, plus open documentation in a community based wiki. The more people use it, the larger the knowledge base becomes, Downs says.


lion tracking GPS illo

Initial testing has already been completed in Tanzania and Kenya and the team is about to embark on a longer phase of testing in Kenya again this summer. Kenya is home to the “Living With Lions” treehouse for the local conservationists working with the animals. “Lion Guardians” are employed there as well–Maasai warriors hired by the Living With Lions Trust to conserve the lions they once killed.


lion tracking GPS

The idea of sustainability has, for the company, become intertwined with its open-source nature, says Piantella.

“We mean sustainable in many different capacities. Sustainable for us means not only efficient but also means less waste. We are a very lean company that re-invests most of its budget instead of spending it in large overhead costs and unnecessary expenses. We produce most of our projects in house and, thanks to a flexible structure, we can produce results faster by drawing in collaborators for larger teams only when necessary, saving Ground Lab valuable resources but also saving the client money while achieving better results faster.”


Piantella had some early training in connecting design and society for more than just aesthetics–she taught “lego-robotics” to 8- to 10-year-olds.

“Teaching Lego-robotics was the best way to combine my love for teaching and my love for technology. Legos are an extremely creative game and the company has been experimenting for a few years with creating modular electronic kits to build real robots using the same block-building technique and aesthetic as their traditional version. Some building blocks have sensors, some have push buttons, some have infrared sensors, some have motors and so on … By snapping pieces together and learning how to program each device and how each electronic component works, kids have a unique experience in building their own inventions and at the same time learning the process of using and manipulating technologies and applying science to a physical project.”

From Legos to lions, she goes.

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About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.