Scientists have taken to the trees to study rainforest habitats for years, but getting to the top of the canopy can be problematic. Now a French pilot and Swedish aeronautical expert have created a range of inventive solutions, including an inflatable raft that can be lowered from the sky right onto the tree tops.
Dany Cleyet-Marrel has been a hot air balloon and airship pilot since 1975. In 1986, he came up with the concept of the Canopy Raft, a platform 'aeroported' in by hot air balloon. The raft itself has a hexagonal design, with sides made from inflatable material and webbing in between each strut. Scientists can use the raft as a workstation nestling in the canopy of the rainforest. It has already been used in Cameroon, Gabon, and Madagascar and was featured on the British website, Deputy Dog.
After testing with a hot air balloon, but then Cleyet-Marrel teamed up with Lindstrand Technologies to design an airship for towing the raft. This company is run by Per Lindstrand, a Swede best known for his series of record-breaking trans-oceanic hot air balloon flights with Sir Richard Branson.
Lindstrand Technologies created the AS 300, which at 8,500 cubic metres is said to be the biggest airship in the world. It needed to be this size to carry the 750kg Canopy Raft. It was later used to carry what the Lindstrand team calls a sledge – a kind of inflatable gondola that can lift three people into the canopy to collect botanical and entomological samples.
The effectiveness of the contraption has led to some problems. Lindstrand said that the team are not using the AS 300 airship and raft at the moment because officials in some countries were unhappy that it allowed scientists to see vast areas of deforestation that governments did not want to be publicised.
Cleyet-Marrel is planning further trips, but instead of the raft he'll be using the Canopy Bubble (shown above), a one-seater 210 cubic metre helium balloon, designed to let scientists move around the treetops, gliding along ropes up to two kilometres long. Cleyet-Marrel says: "The Canopy Bubble allows a researcher to remain in contact with the canopy during two or three hours in the morning, evening or at night. The passenger can move along the rope simply by pulling him or herself along the rope by hand or with a jumar clamp in case of adverse wind. A secondary rope attached to the main rope enables a researcher to cover greater distances away from the main rope and thus increases the field of investigation."