This new drone can collect environmental DNA from tree branches

As a potential solution, researchers at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research WSL, and the company SPYGEN have partnered to develop a unique drone that can autonomously collect samples on tree branches, according to a release.

The study is published in the journal Science Robotics.

This new drone can collect environmental DNA from tree branches

The eDrone is teleoperated above a targeted branch; it autonomously lands on the branch and establishes a stable contact to collect the eDNA.

Landing on tree branches to collect DNA

The mechanism sounds simple, but the reality is far from it. The drone is equipped with adhesive strips – when it lands on a branch, material from the tree sticks to these strips. Researchers can then extract the eDNA in a lab and catalog it using database comparisons. 

“Landing on branches requires complex control,” Stefano Mintchev, Professor of Environmental Robotics at ETH Zurich and WSL, said in a statement. Branches vary in terms of their thickness and elasticity and can bend and rebound when a drone lands on them.

Therefore, the aircraft is programmed to approach a branch by itself and remain stable on it to take samples. This was a significant challenge for the scientists. Also, since a drone cannot fathom the flexibility of a branch, the researchers fitted it with a force-sensing cage that enables the aircraft to measure this factor at the scene.

The aircraft has been tested on seven tree species. The samples revealed DNA from 21 distinct groups of organisms, or taxa, including birds, mammals, and insects. “This is encouraging because it shows that the collection technique works,” said Mintchev.

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