Competing for Conservation Comprehension

Student Competition Profile: XPRIZE

Student Competition Profile: XPRIZE

The large drones are in construction and the team has several working prototypes for the long-range flight capability and the radiofrequency data link needed to remotely control the data collection process. All images courtesy of Duke University, Pratt School of Engineering.


The Rainforest XPRIZE is a competition from the XPRIZE foundation that aims to tackle how engineers, biologists and ecologists understand the rainforest ecosystem. 

The Duke Rainforest XPRIZE team “Blue Devil Forest Divers” has received university support for students and clubs to develop large heavy-lift drones that can fly deep into impenetrable rainforest regions and then drop remotely piloted forest imaging and sensor drones to collect images, sounds and samples from the over-story, canopy and under-story layers. 

Digital Engineering spoke to Martin Brooke, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering about the competition and Duke’s involvement.

Digital Engineering: Can you provide us with a brief overview of the competition?

Professor Martin Brooke: The large drones are in construction and the team has several working prototypes for both long-range flight capability and the radiofrequency (RF) data link needed to remotely control the data collection process. The team is using commercial drones from Parrot as the main forest data collection devices and have already started collecting images in both visible and infrared from local forest sites.

This competition gives the students an exposure to the type of multidisciplinary teams that exist in most real-world companies.  

This project unites students from various disciplines including public policy, conservation sciences and engineering.

Duke’s classes Rainforest Engineering and Ocean Engineering provide a structure for students to earn credit working on XPRIZE competitions. This model has worked well for Duke in the past with classes aiding an Ocean XPRIZE team to a $111K winning finalist place.

DE: What do you think students get out of these classes? Why use XPRIZE competitions as challenges instead of general design projects?

Brooke: I do not intentionally choose [to do] only XPRIZE competitions; however, I do find that global challenges to solve hard problems that could have a major impact on the whole world really excite students. The fact that philanthropists have put up millions in prize money and support funds for the XPRIZE contests also gets students’ attention.

The contests we enter cover a very broad range of fields and technologies; this gives the students an exposure to the type of multidisciplinary teams that exist in most real-world companies. Students tell me it gives them something interesting to talk about on job interviews. The XPRIZE really likes that students within the contest have gone on to jobs in the field and graduate school.

I think the multiyear nature of the contest really helps to build a community of students that strive together to make the team succeed. 

DE: Do you think your students might ever win an XPRIZE, or have one of their solutions adopted by the competition’s sponsors?

Brooke: I hope so. We have come quite close to winning twice, getting into the final round. However, we lose many of our most experienced students every semester. Imagine running a company where you fired all the skilled workers every six months! Additionally, we are typically up against companies and organizations that are much better funded and much more experienced than us. In the last Ocean XPRIZE, a high school team won $850K, so there is hope for us. 

The competition gives students something interesting to talk about on job interviews. 

I always say we are not in the contests to win; we are in to compete towards completing the goal. We want to make it as far as we possibly can and consider just competing in XPRIZE each semester a victory.

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Jim Romeo

Jim Romeo is a freelance writer based in Chesapeake, VA. Send e-mail about this article to [email protected]g.news.

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