Researchers have developed a flying device that can land on tree branches to take samples.

This opens up a new dimension for scientists previously reserved for biodiversity researchers.

Ecologists are increasingly using traces of genetic material left behind by living organisms in the environment, called environmental DNA (eDNA), to catalogue and monitor biodiversity. Based on these DNA traces, researchers can determine which species are present in a certain area.

Obtaining samples from water or soil is easy, but other habitats—such as the forest canopy—are difficult for researchers to access. As a result, many species remain untracked in poorly explored areas.

Researchers at ETH Zurich; the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research WSL; and the company SPYGEN partnered to develop the special drone.

The drone is equipped with adhesive strips. When the aircraft lands on a branch, material from the branch sticks to these strips. Researchers can then extract DNA in the lab, analyze it, and assign it to genetic matches of the various organisms using database comparisons.

But not all branches are the same: they vary in terms of their thickness and elasticity. Branches also bend and rebound when a drone lands on them. Programming the aircraft in such a way that it can still approach a branch autonomously and remain stable on it long enough to take samples was a major challenge for the roboticists.

Read the full article about tracking biodiversity with drones by Peter Rüegg at Futurity.