Rainforest XPRIZE: Community Biodiversity Data Collection (2021-2022)


Untouched (primary) tropical rainforests are among the largest repositories of forest biodiversity in the world. Unfortunately, they are being degraded and destroyed at a rapid rate, and many ecosystems are being lost forever. If researchers can document the biodiversity of the rainforests before they are destroyed, the world will at least stand a chance of recovering them in the future and perhaps the information gained will raise awareness and support for policy that prevents deforestation.

The process of documenting the biodiversity of rainforests is difficult. Much of it resides in the canopy hundreds of feet above ground, which is the region most devastated by deforestation and most poorly replaced by unaided regrowth. The canopy is very hard to access using conventional scientific tools. Satellite imagery cannot penetrate into the canopy due to the dense vegetation, and the resolution is not adequate to detect small plants and animals or to identify trees accurately. Human canopy climbing is time consuming and dangerous, but arboreal canopy camera traps are able to detect many more species than ground-based cameras alone. This indicates that a technology to rapidly collect data from the rainforests’ upper layers would greatly increase the ability to perform rapid biodiversity surveys.

Project Description

A Duke team has been participating in the Rainforest XPRIZE competition by developing technology to engage a broad community in identifying rainforest canopy species quickly and accurately. This project will set up a trial of the technology in an actual tropical rainforest through an iNaturalist community event. The project also aims to make the biodiversity of tropical rainforests the focus of a broad community of iNaturalist users by making the normally inaccessible rainforest canopy transparent in real time. 

Team members will help develop large heavy-lift drones that can fly deep into previously impenetrable rainforest and drop remotely piloted forest “diving” imaging and sensor drones to collect images, sounds and samples from the overstory, canopy and understory layers.

The team will work with iNaturalist to set up an event for Summer 2022 in which volunteer and expert biologists will identify a large number of tropical rainforest species using images from the forest diving drones. A documentary subteam will tell the story of the year-long planning and execution process.

Project components will include working on the iNaturalist event and community development; generating drivers for the technology development; developing the rainforest data collection systems; working on the data processing for identification; and telling the story of the project and building the community through engagement.

Learn more about this project team by viewing the team's video.

Anticipated Outputs

Literature review; data repository of rainforest species on iNaturalist app; refined technology

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will be comprised of 5 graduate students and 20 undergraduate students from a variety of disciplines including engineering, environmental science, computer science and other conservation-related fields. A balance of students with technical skill in designing and employing methods of measuring biodiversity and students who can analyze and interpret the data to make a compelling argument or tell a good story is desired.  

There is a very broad range of work to be done to achieve the goal of the iNaturalist event in Summer 2022. Students will meet with and interview experts in biodiversity data collection, arrange a field site with local site participation, document the processes and outcomes, and develop the technology to capture and produce usable images. Much of this work is new research or uses recent research results in new ways, which is potentially publishable. 

In Fall 2021, the team will meet on Mondays from 3:15-4:00 p.m.

Graduate students will take on leadership roles guiding the undergraduates to reach their goals and document their achievements. A graduate student will be selected to serve as project manager.

Student travel opportunities are to be determined.


Summer 2021 – Summer 2022 

  • Summer 2021 (optional): Begin planning iNaturalist event
  • Fall 2021: Ocean Engineering course with some projects related to Rainforest XPRIZE; arrange sites for iNaturalist event
  • Spring 2022: Rainforest Engineering course with most projects to Rainforest XPRIZE; prepare for iNaturalist event
  • Summer 2022 (optional): iNaturalist event


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available


Image: Rainforest canopy, by Ben Sutherland, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Rainforest canopy.

Team Leaders

  • Martin Brooke, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering
  • Stuart Pimm, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Guillermo Sapiro, Pratt School of Engineering-Electrical & Computer Engineering

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Brad Boyle, Hardner and Gullison Associates
  • Paul Bunje, Conservation X-labs
  • Alex Dehgan, Conservation X-labs
  • Brian Enquist, University of Arizona
  • Jared Hardner, Hardner and Gullison Associates
  • Scott Loarie, iNaturalist
  • Margaret Lowman, Tree Foundation
  • Miles Silman, Wake Forest University
  • Laura Symes, Cornell University