Illinois Tech Professor’s Team Advances to Finals of Five-Year, $10 Million XPRIZE Rainforest Competition
Matthew Spenko, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, used drones to deliver and retrieve sensor packages in the Singaporean rainforest
CHICAGO—July 25, 2023—Matthew Spenko, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Illinois Institute of Technology, is leading his team, Welcome to the Jungle, into the finals of the prestigious XPRIZE Rainforest competition—a global five-year, $10 million contest designed to enhance our understanding of tropical rainforest ecosystems around the world. Welcome to the Jungle—composed of members from Illinois Tech, Purdue University, Natural State, and the Morton Arboretum—is one of six teams advancing to the finals, which will be held in 2024.
“We are extremely excited to be part of the XPRIZE Rainforest competition finals. The semifinal field trials in Singapore showed us how difficult this challenge is, and we’re ready to implement everything we learned there into our approach for the finals,” says Spenko, whose team was one of 13 semifinalists. “We also got a glimpse at how impressive the competition is and are looking forward to seeing more next year.”
The team’s innovative approach involves delivering and retrieving sensor packages to the rainforest and 3D mapping the rainforest seamlessly using drones. These sensors are designed to identify species, particularly birds, from audio and visual data. Spenko’s partners at Purdue University, led by Professor Jinha Jung, took the lead on aerial surveying to measure vegetation, quantify tree species’ diversity and determine potential sensor deployment locations.
“Working collaboratively, our team has been able to obtain crucial insights about the health and biodiversity of the rainforest,” says Jung, assistant professor of civil engineering and a member of Purdue’s digital forestry initiative. “Our joint efforts illustrate the power of inter-university collaboration in addressing critical environmental challenges.”
Under the guidance of Spenko, the project has been a tremendous opportunity for experiential learning, with about 60 undergraduate students contributing to the project, including six who went to Singapore. “It’s just a lot of fun to be able to work with students on this,” Spenko says. “There’s great satisfaction getting to see the next generation of engineers working on important societal problems.”
The significant student involvement embodies Illinois Tech’s commitment to learning by doing, and Spenko hopes to bring undergraduate students to the finals as well.
“Participation in the XPRIZE Rainforest competition presents an unmatched experiential-learning opportunity for our students,” says Kevin Cassel, interim dean of Armour College of Engineering. “In addition to developing technical solutions in support of the environment, the team is seeing their hard work and innovative thinking recognized on a global platform, which is immensely gratifying and speaks volumes about the quality of engineering education at Illinois Tech, as well as the talent and commitment of our faculty.”
Illinois Tech alumnus Jim Albrecht (FE ’53, M.S. ’55) sponsored Welcome to the Jungle’s airfare and accommodations for the semifinals.
Incentivizing teams to innovate rapid and autonomous technology to expedite the monitoring of biodiversity and data collection, XPRIZE Rainforest aims to allow researchers to gain near real-time insights about the health and well-being of rainforests that can more immediately inform conservation action and policy, support sustainable bioeconomies and empower Indigenous peoples and local communities around the world.
“We cannot effectively protect what we cannot accurately measure and understand,” said Peter Houlihan, Executive Vice President, Biodiversity and Conservation, XPRIZE. “I’m extremely encouraged by the advancements these teams have made to develop new, more rapid ways of measuring biodiversity that can improve conservation efforts worldwide. We look forward to seeing how they further refine their approaches during finals testing.”
The winning team will survey the most biodiversity contained in 100 hectares of tropical rainforest in 24 hours and produce the most impactful real-time insights within 48 hours. Learn more at xprize.org/rainforest.
Photo: Professor Matthew Spenko, second from right, looks at team Welcome to the Jungle’s drone, along with a member of the XPRIZE organizing team, in the vest, and several students from Illinois Institute of Technology. The Illinois Tech students are, from left, Naia Lum (MMAE 4th Year), Patrick Grider (MMAE 4th Year), Ethan Jennsen (MMAE 3rd Year), David Cañones Bonham (MMAE Ph.D. Student), Patrick Dunne (MMAE 4th Year), and Khang Pham (MMAE 3rd Year), looking away from camera. (Photo credit: Cat Kutz/XPRIZE)
Illinois Institute of Technology
Based in the global metropolis of Chicago, Illinois Tech was born to liberate the power of collective difference to advance technology and progress for all. It is the only tech-focused university in the city, and it stands at the crossroads of exploration and invention, advancing the future of Chicago and the world. It offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, computing, architecture, business, design, science and human sciences, and law. Illinois Tech students are guaranteed hands-on experiences, personalized mentorship, and job readiness through the university's one-of-a-kind Elevate program. Its graduates lead the state and much of the nation in economic prosperity. Its faculty and alumni built the Chicago skyline. And every day in the living lab of the city, Illinois Tech fuels breakthroughs that change lives. Visit iit.edu.
Armour College of Engineering
Armour College of Engineering has been educating world-class engineers since the university’s founding in 1890. As future engineers who will innovate in the twenty-first century, Armour students learn the principles of the profession and work in an interdisciplinary environment that emphasizes hands-on learning, teamwork, and leadership, all through the lens of our four engineering themes—water, health, energy, and security—that highlight issues vital today and in the future. Armour is home to five departments and nine ABET-accredited undergraduate majors, which provide a wide breadth of exciting programs from which to choose. Illinois Tech alumni have advanced to careers as presidents of companies and professors at major universities—and have become members of the National Academy of Engineering, the highest distinction in the field.
XRPIZE is an established global leader in designing, launching, and executing large scale competitions to solve humanity’s greatest challenges. Our unique model democratizes innovation by incentivizing crowd-sourced, scientifically viable solutions to create a more equitable and abundant future for all. Donate, learn more, or join a team at xprize.org.
Purdue Digital Forestry
Digital Forestry at Purdue University leverages digital technology and multidisciplinary expertise to measure, monitor and manage urban and rural forests to maximize social, economic and ecological benefits. Its team—of more than 30 faculty across 15 departments—develops digital platforms and strategies that revolutionize forestry and build a competitive next-generation workforce. The initiative is part of Plant Sciences 2.0, one of five strategic investments made through Purdue’s Next Moves.
Illinois Institute of Technology