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Australian rainforest at late afternoon with sun rays breaks through the trees

Dart-shooting drones devised to help monitor forests

Image credit: Pawel Papis/Dreamstime

Researchers at Imperial College London have developed drones that can attach sensors to trees to monitor environmental and ecological changes in cluttered forests.

Sensors for forest monitoring are already used to track changes in temperature, humidity, and light, as well as the movements of animals and insects through their habitat. They also help to detect and monitor forest fires and can provide valuable data on how climate change and other human activities are impacting the natural world. Placing these sensors has proven difficult in large forests with tall trees, while climbing trees to place them poses its own risks to safety.

To tackle this issue, a team at Imperial’s Aerial Robotics Lab have created drones that can shoot sensor-containing darts onto trees several metres away in cluttered environments such as forests. The drones can also place sensors through contact or by perching on tree branches.

“Monitoring forest ecosystems can be difficult, but our drones could deploy whole networks of sensors to boost the amount and precision of environmental and ecological data,” said Professor Mirko Kovac, director of the lab. “I like to think of them as artificial forest inhabitants who will soon watch over the ecosystem and provide the data we need to protect the environment.”

The researchers hope the drones will be used in the future to create networks of sensors to boost data on forest ecosystems and to track hard-to-navigate biomes, a community of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment they exist in, such as the Amazon rainforest.

The drones are equipped with cameras to help identify suitable targets, along with a smart material that changes shape when heated to launch the darts, which then stick to the trees. The drones can also perch on tree branches just like birds to collect data themselves, acting as mobile sensors, according to the researchers.

“There are plenty of challenges to be addressed before the drones can be regularly used in forests, like achieving a careful balance between human input and automated tasks so that they can be used safely while remaining adaptable to unpredictable environments,” said André Farhina, of the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial. 

Currently, the drones created are controlled by people. Using control units, the researchers watch through the camera lens to select target trees and shoot the darts. The next step is to make the drones autonomous so that researchers can test how they fare in denser forest environments without human guidance.

“We aim to introduce new design and control strategies to allow drones to effectively operate in forested environments,” Dr Salua Hamaza explained. “Exploiting smart mechanisms and new sensing techniques we can off-load the onboard computation and create platforms that are energy-efficient and better performing.”

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