6 June 2024

Innovative use of drone technology to monitor the health of rainforest has seen a group of scientists and researchers from Switzerland reach the final of the XPRIZE Rainforest, a $10 million global environmental competition.

The Swiss team used drones to collect environmental DNA (eDNA) samples without actually setting foot in the rainforest. They then analysed the collected data and identified hundreds of plant and animal species.

“We’re all coming together to meet the big challenge that XPRIZE has put in front of us to survey rainforests rapidly and then communicate those insights to the broader community,” said Dr Kristy Deiner, professor of environmental DNA at ETH Zurich.

XPRIZE Rainforest is a global competition aiming to enhance our understanding of rainforests by encouraging the development of technology to monitor, measure and assess the complex ecosystem.

The XPRIZE semi-final in Singapore saw 13 teams competing to demonstrate the effectiveness of their technologies with 24 hours to collect data and another 48 hours to analyse their findings and compile a report.

“My role in the XPRIZE team is to bring in the technology of environmental DNA and using this to survey biodiversity very rapidly,” Deiner said.

The challenge was to identify as many species of plants and animals as possible across a designated plot without actually setting foot in the jungle.

Environmental DNA includes traces of plants and animals in a particular area that prove an animal or plant lives in the area.

The Swiss team developed a variety of probes suspended from drones to collect eDNA from the air and by making contact with the forest canopy.

“We brought here mainly two types of drones,” said Stefano Mintchev, Assistant Professor of Environmental Robotics at ETH Zurich, describing two different methods of collecting samples.

“We added a custom payload and with this custom payload we are able to collect air to sample airborne eDNA. And the second payload is a probe that we can lower inside the canopy in order to collect surface eDNA by swabbing the vegetation that we encounter when the probe moves up and down into the canopy,” Mintchev said.

The Swiss team involved ETH Zurich, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, WSL, and 29 other organisations from at least 12 other countries.

They will join 5 other teams in the XPRIZE Rainforest final next year.

By Reuters