Autonomous Drones to Enhance Rainforest Biodiversity Assessment

by | Aug 7, 2023 | Autonomous

XPRIZE Rainforest is an international competition offering a prize of 10 million US dollars aimed at advancing biodiversity assessment technologies to deepen our understanding of rainforest ecosystems. Launched in 2019, the competition attracted nearly 300 teams initially, which were later narrowed down to the top 13 semi-finalists. The semi-final testing phase took place in the lush rainforests of Singapore during May and June 2023, featuring prominent teams like ETH BiodivX, led by ETH Zurich, comprising 29 members from 13 different countries. The team’s mission was to showcase the efficacy of their collaboratively developed technologies. Notably, the ETH BiodivX team involved 56 individuals from 15 organizations, including notable ETH spin-offs Restor, Diaxxo, and SimplexDNA.

Autonomous Drone Technology for Rainforest Research

Unveiling Rainforest Biodiversity from the Skies

Each semi-finalist team was granted 72 hours to complete their testing, consisting of 24 hours for sample collection and 48 hours for analysis and report compilation. The primary challenge was to identify a wide array of plant and animal species within a designated plot without physically entering the jungle.

During the 24-hour sampling phase, the ETH BiodivX team utilized a drone to scan the rainforest an impressive 41 times, gathering 50 samples of environmental DNA (eDNA). These DNA traces are left behind by living organisms through excretions, skin, and hair particles, offering valuable information on the presence of different species in a given area. The team employed three types of eDNA samples – water, air, and surface samples – leveraging the drone’s capabilities to collect data from various vantage points. Notably, they developed a specialized probe for surface sampling, attached to the drone, and lowered it deep into the rainforest using a winch, allowing access to otherwise inaccessible parts of the tree canopy.

In total, the ETH BiodivX team generated over 12 million DNA sequences and successfully detected a remarkable 257 plant and animal species, compiling their findings in a comprehensive report.

A Pragmatic Testing Ground

Addressing the challenges of rainforest conditions and sampling techniques required careful practice before the semi-finalists headed to Singapore. Fortunately, the Masoala Rainforest at Zoo Zurich served as an ideal practice environment. Apart from its mission to educate, conserve nature, and protect endangered species, Zoo Zurich actively supports research endeavors. The collaboration with ETH Zurich proved to be a prime example of utilizing the Masoala Rainforest to test and optimize research methods before field deployment.

The Road to the 2024 Finals

The XPRIZE Rainforest finalists were unveiled during the ICCB 2023 conferencecall_made on Monday, 24th July. Among the distinguished finalists was the ETH BiodivX team. Excited about the opportunity to address the biodiversity crisis, ETH Professor Kristy Deiner emphasized the importance of this competition in fostering groundbreaking solutions. As they head into the final round, the finalist teams have the chance to further refine their technologies before the grand finale scheduled for 2024.

by: Jill Madison

by: Jill Madison

Raised in New York City by parents who are electrical engineers, Jill was easy prey for entry into the field of electrical engineering, where she worked on designing engine control systems for a number of large auto manufacturers. She developed an "interest" in robotics during this period of time and decided to fuel her interest by reporting on the topic.

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