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Duke team gets global attention for rainforest drone project

At a class starting this week at Duke, students are working on a drone project with money on the line. The Blue Devil Rainforest Divers have reached the semifinals in an XPrize contest, a global competition with a ten million dollar purse.

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A team at Duke University is developing a new way to track rainforest biodiversity with autonomous drones.

The Blue Devil Rainforest Divers has made it to the semi-finals of XPrize Rainforest, a global, five-year competition with a purse of $10 million.

Duke Professor Martin Brooke just started this semester's engineering class with students that will continue to build on the project to prepare for competition in Singapore next summer.

"We're measuring the biodiviersity of rainforests with no humans involved, so using machines to go in and gather data with the goal of measuring large areas of rainforest biodiversity quickly and cheaply," Brooke said.

Rainforests cover less than 10% of the earth's surface, but houses more than 50% of the planet's biodiversity.

“That's what we’re trying to measure so people can tell if it's still there and what they can do to save it and also restore it when its being taken away,” Brooke said.

A group of students field test drone designs in Costa Rica over the summer of 2022. Photo by Alex Xu.

A team from Duke, including graduate student Jackie Fahrenholz, traveled to Costa Rica this summer to field test their designs.

"Getting to see the monkeys and the birds, it just really hit home for us because that's why we do what we do," Fahrenholz said.

Students are divided into groups to work on different aspects of the project including developing ways to drop data collection equipment into the rainforest, software to fly smarter, and tweaking the large "mother drone," a launchpad for smaller drones that hovers above the canopy.

The Duke team will compete against 14 other semi-finalists from 10 different countries.

“This is a dream come true and a once in a lifetime opportunity," Fahrenholz said. "I'm looking forward to it.”

WRAL's Climate in Crisis reporting is supported by a partnership with 1Earth Fund and Journalism Funding Partners.