Empa / Aerial Robotics Lab: Smart drones equipped with sensors to boost the amount and precision of environmental and ecological data

The flying robots can place arrows equipped with sensors even in dense forests. Image: Imperial College London

(PRESS RELEASE) DÜBENDORF, 3-Nov-2020 — /EuropaWire/ — Empa, the Swiss research institute for applied materials sciences and technology, and Imperial College London, a public research university with focus on excellence in science, engineering, medicine and business, have announced that they have developed drones that can attach sensors to trees to monitor environmental and ecological changes in 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 habitats. They also help to detect and monitor forest fires and can provide valuable data on how climate change and other human activities are affecting the natural world. Placing these sensors can, however, prove difficult in large, tall forests, and climbing trees to place them poses its own risks.

Flying robots à la Robin Hood

Now, a team of researchers from Empa and Imperial College London has developed drones that can shoot sensor-containing darts onto trees several meters away in cluttered environments like forests. The drones can also place sensors through contact or by perching on tree branches. The researchers hope the drones will be used in future to create networks of sensors to boost data on forest ecosystems and to track hard-to-navigate biomes like the Amazon rainforest.

Unpredictable rainforest

“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”, says lead researcher Mirko Kovac, head of the Materials and Technology Center of Robotics at Empa and the Aerial Robotics Lab at Imperial. “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 these ecosystems.”

This is how drones work in the different layers of the rainforest vegetation. Illustration: Imperial College London

Smart materials on the trigger

Sensor arrows: Precision during launch and landing thanks to smart materials. Image: Imperial College London

The drones are equipped with cameras to help identify suitable targets, and a smart material that changes shape when heated to launch the darts, which then stick to the trees. They can also perch on tree branches like birds to collect data themselves, acting as mobile sensors. The researchers have tested their drones at NEST experimental robot testing space at Empa and on trees at Imperial’s Silwood Park Campus.

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets Hub (ORCA) EU’s Horizon 2020 and United Kingdom’s national academy of sciences The Royal Society.


More Information:

Prof. Dr. Mirko Kovac (Empa)
Materials and Technology Centre of Robotics
Phone: +41 58 765 4689

Aerial Robotics Lab (Imperial)
Phone: +44 20 7594 5063

Media contacts:

Caroline Brogan (Imperial College London)
Research Media Officer
Phone: +44 20 7594 3415
Out of hours press officer mobile: +44 7803 886248

Dr. Andrea Six (Empa)
Phone: +41 58 765 6133



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