In 2017, Scot Martin, the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), envisioned a novel drone-based chemical monitoring system to track the health of the Amazon in the face of global climate change and human-caused deforestation and burning.
The project would monitor chemical signals emitted by plants known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which help plants interact with organisms around them. Every species of plant emits a different VOC signature — like a fingerprint — which can change based on the season or if the plant is under duress from, for example, drought or flood. Monitoring and translating these signals can reveal how forest ecosystems respond to stress caused by climate change.
Traditionally, this kind of monitoring has been done from large platform towers that rise above the canopy of the forest.