SINGAPORE – Like putting a swab into the nose to detect Covid-19, a “swab” of the forest can reveal much about the myriad of flora and fauna there.
To document as many species in as little time as possible, Swiss team ETH BiodivX deployed five drones to Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve – to sample the air, collect genetic material from trees, and collect water samples.
Meanwhile, a robotic rover roamed the forest floor, snapping photos of the surrounding flora and fauna and collecting DNA samples from vegetation.
The team, led by Swiss university ETH Zurich, was one of 13 from around the world who tested its technology in Singapore from late May to early June, as part of the semi-finals, for a US$10 million (S$13.3 million) global competition.
Known as XPrize Rainforest, the California-based organisation is looking to identify viable tech solutions that could automate how scientists survey and study the world’s degrading rainforests.
There are three rainforest basins in the world – the Amazon, which is the largest at 6.7 million sq km, more than twice the size of India; the Congo basin; and South-east Asia.
They play an important role in the climate system, because trees on the equator can absorb planet-warming carbon dioxide through photosynthesis all year round.
Rainforests are also home to many human communities, as well as many different species of rare wildlife.
Teams comprising scientists and robotics engineers had 24 hours to test their technologies in a defined plot within the nature reserve, and another 48 hours to analyse the data and provide an assessment of the species found there.
On Monday, ETH BiodivX was one of six teams selected to advance to the finals of the competition, as they presented technologies which had the best potential to survey rainforests remotely.
Next year’s finals, according to the organisers, will be held at a more “remote and challenging” location.
Teams will also need to demonstrate the scalability of their technology and maximise performance on both biodiversity surveying and producing insights in order to meet the prize criteria, said XPrize.
Explaining ETH BiodivX’s technology, Dr Stefano Mintchev, the team’s co-lead researcher, told The Straits Times that environmental DNA (eDNA) represents the genetic traces that a living thing leaves in the environment.
“This could be an animal that is losing skin and hair particles, its saliva, or its faeces, that we collect and process in our database – which we can then trace back to the relevant species.”