Measuring the Amazon’s biodiversity

It seems apposite that the six finalists in the $10 million XPRIZE Rainforest, unveiled in Kigali, Rwanda in July, all use drones in some way in their ideas about how to develop new biodiversity assessment technologies that improve our understanding of rainforest ecosystems.  

Because it was Rwanda that led the way in using drones to improve health care for remote hospitals and patients – something that has been overshadowed by the use of drones in war that has grabbed the headlines more recently.

The five-year competition aims to enhance our understanding of the rainforest ecosystem. The six finalists, announced at the Society for Conservation Biology’s 31st International Congress for Conservation Biology in Kigali, Rwanda, are from Brazil, Switzerland, Spain, and three from the US (Connecticut, Colorado, and Chicago). They are:

Brazilian Team – drones, sensor arrays, ground robotics, and drone-mounted pruners designed to gather environmental DNA (eDNA) samples for assessment.

ETH BiodivX – proprietary and modified drones used to collect digital and physical samples that can be analyzed using “backpack laboratory” tech combining novel AI, citizen science, and field eDNA for cost-effective, remote analysis.

Map of Life Rapid Assessments – unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) outfitted with high resolution image capture and acoustic sensors that transmit data to a cloud-based dashboard.

Providence Plus – DROP (Deep-Rainforest Operational Platform), a low-cost scalable drone-delivered autonomous multi-sensor solution equipped with AI to automatically monitor biodiversity in real-time at multiple levels of canopy that are otherwise difficult to access.

Team Waponi! – novel insect-capturing traps and bioacoustic sensors innovated to be deployed and retrieved via drone.

Welcome to the Jungle – drones with bioacoustic and imagery sensors customized to leave behind only organic material native to the forest upon retrieval.

XPRIZE Rainforest

XPRIZE Rainforest completed its semifinals testing phase in Singapore in June 2023. Each team had 24 hours to test their technologies in defined plots within the forest. Successful teams demonstrated the ability to survey the forest over a wide area, capturing images, bioacoustics, DNA and physical samples and identifying them within a 48-hour period of data analysis to provide a species richness assessment.

Launched in 2019,  XPRIZE Rainforest aims to accelerate innovation of technologies that rapidly and comprehensively survey biodiversity and produce impactful insights to inform conservation efforts. Successful teams must demonstrate their technology’s scalability to measurably improve biodiversity monitoring, and include a process to improve autonomous and rapid data integration that provides unprecedented levels of detail in real time. 

“We cannot effectively protect what we cannot accurately measure and understand,” said Peter Houlihan, XPRIZE’s executive vice president, biodiversity and conservation. “I’m extremely encouraged by the advancements these teams have made to develop new, more rapid ways of measuring biodiversity that can improve conservation efforts worldwide. We’re particularly excited to see some teams surface new field eDNA capabilities that signal a major advancement for the field of biodiversity assessment at large.” 

The final phase will entail another round of testing in a more remote and challenging location. Winning team technologies must be able to survey 100 hectares of tropical rainforest in 24 hours and produce real-time insights within 48 hours. Teams also need to demonstrate the scalability of their technology and maximize performance on both biodiversity surveying and producing insights.

“We need serious intervention to halt rainforest destruction, and I believe that the technologies in development through this competition can help get us closer to achieving this,” said Atossa Soltani, founder and board president of Amazon Watch and member of the XPRIZE Rainforest judging panel. “Working in tandem with the Indigenous peoples who best know how to preserve the forest, these new technologies can be deployed to help increase their levels of protection.”

Cover image: Neil Palmer, CIAT/Wikimedia Commons