Eonef, biodiversity’s conservation efforts take off the ground

(c) Eonef

The French startup has designed an autonomous solar-powered aerial platform in the form of a helium aerostat — a tool that allows conservation scientists to take the observation and study of biodiversity to unprecedented heights.

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history — and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely,” warns the latest landmark report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). About one million species of wild animals worldwide —whose extinction would have catastrophic effects on food security, health and quality of life for human beings— are, according to scientists, threatened with extinction.

 

In order to better protect the planet’s precious fauna, conservation institutions study wild animals’ behavior in their natural habitats in the most comprehensive way possible — a particularly daunting task when research needs to be conducted at remote or high forest density locations where, too often, the lack of effective means of access and communication complicates the mission, or even makes it impossible. But a French startup could have found a solution — photovoltaic balloons.

 

Founded in 2016, the French social company Eonef has designed a helium-flying balloon that allows research teams to gain height and visibility on the field, and monitor remote areas’ biodiversity evolutions using GPS transmitters to track wild animals. These energy self-sufficient balloons, equipped with solar panels, telecommunications receptors and cameras, can rise up to 150 meters above strategic points in a field in less than 30 minutes, while remaining attached to the ground by a cable. Once up in the air, the telecommunications system inside the balloon can collect a large amount of observational data thanks to a signal range up to five times stronger than a traditional antenna.

 

The system also enlarges the scope of coverage exponentially compared to traditional on-the-ground observation systems, which are often composed of antennas scattered kilometers apart from one another. By removing the multiplicity of ground-level points, scientists can avoid travelling these distances by car to collect all the animal observation data —polluting natural habitats in the process— and do so faster, to devote more of their time to actually analyzing the results.

 

Needless of a pilot or an engine, the technology has one particular advantage that is likely appreciated by both researchers and animals — autonomous and silent, unlike a drone, it can enter a natural ecosystem and track the wildlife over a several-weeks period of time without stressing the little fellows nor influencing their activities.

 

Co-founded by Julie Dautel and Cédric Tomissi and based in the Paris region, Eonef has already launched two aerostats for biodiversity monitoring purposes. The first one was deployed in June 2019 on Reunion Island in partnership with Geolinkx, a company specializing in wildlife monitoring and environmental conservation. The balloon monitored for a week endemic birds of prey, aiming to gain a better understanding of their way of life and foster their preservation in the wild.

 

The second, a 10-cubic meter captive balloon deployed last September in the Pilliga Forest Conservation Reserve in Australia, allowed the Australian Wildlife Conservation teams to study the movements of small protected mammals, such as bilbies and marsupial mice, covering a 25,000-hectares areas. The goal? To make observation rounds of forest rangers easier.

 

But these aerostats’ potential use goes beyond scientific purposes. They can also be deployed during crisis or emergency situations, such as fires, to secure the area and coordinate ground rescue efforts, or to monitor crowd movements during events taking place in large spaces. Eonef is currently undertaking a fundraising campaign to launch the balloons’ industrialization phase. Available for rental on one-off missions or for purchase, they should hit the market in 2020.

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This article has been written as part as a series of stories produced for open_resource by Sparknews, a French social enterprise that aims to foster new narratives that can help accelerate a social and environmental transition to tackle our world’s most pressing issues.

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