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Earfly’s silent drones fly to Laos to support research on endangered species

29/10/2019

The innovative Acoustic Drone developed by Earfly will be deployed in Laos, in November, to test not only its performance in the challenging weather conditions but also to collect precious data on the number of gibbons, an endangered monkey species that lives in Southeast Asian country, for a research project supported also by National Geographic Society.

One of the better definitions of innovation is “to seek a new or better solution to address a certain need”. This is certainly the case for Earfly, the Ticino-based startup created by Filippo and Federico Franchini and their friend Franck Perruchoud, which has developed a so-called Acoustic Drone to support a research project of the University of St Andrews in Scotland. It requires a precise estimation essentially in piloting their drone over the forest to record the territorial calls of the gibbons, a species of monkeys the numbers of which are declining due to deforestation and that need to be counted in order to fill the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the international list of endangered species. National Geographic sponsors the fieldwork in Laos, whereas Earfly is mainly self-funded by Filippo, Federico and Franck.

Research projects in biology commonly make use of fixed microphone arrays placed on the ground to collect this sort of information, but the terrain in the Nakai Nam Theun National Park in Laos is mountainous and covered by a tropical forest. Therefore, rather inaccessible, making the use of fixed microphone arrays rather costly (also in terms of human resources to deploy and move them around).

Furthermore, gibbons are difficult to observe because, although they emit territorial calls that can be heard up to 1 km, they are rather discreet and are easily scared. In addition to this, the data for the research needs to be statistically relevant, that is, complete. The project, in fact, is part of Filippo’s PhD research at CREEM (Centre into Research of Ecological and Environmental Modelling, University of St Andrews), which specialises in estimating the number of animals using statistical models.

The original idea of using a drone emerged because it could provide more flexibility and save time, compared to traditional microphones that need also to be moved around often. However, traditional drones are noisy and, when equipped with audio or visual recording devices, heavy. Hence the innovative solution developed by Earfly that reduces not only the ‘noise’ caused by the drone propellers connected to the core of the device through the rods. And the device is lightweight, thanks also to the miniature self-powered 8-channel recorder, weighing only 18 grams, which through a special long-distance audio capture device, can record the gibbons from a safe distance. The drone's flight card works with the firmware ArduCopter, the Full-Featured Multicopter UAV.

Filippo and Federico will return to Switzerland before the holidays, with much precious data and, most important, a thoroughly tested device which will be ready to enter the market for production.

 

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