ECOLOGY research often involves trekking deep into the jungle for hours, or taking thousands of time-consuming, tedious tree measurements.

But researchers have come up with new technologies to get around these issues, in a foretaste of the future of ecology and conservation research.

Singapore firm BioMachines, started by three engineers and a biologist a year ago, can put together any combination of sensors to monitor tree girth, say, and beam data to researchers each time the tree grows.

The start-up uses commercially available or custom sensors.

At its heart lies a set of instructions to make the various sensors, even those of different brands that use different technology, talk to each other and transmit data en masse via Wi-Fi, ZigBee, GSM or other wireless communication methods.

The start-up has a four-month-old test site at Nanyang Technological University's National Institute of Education (NIE), and is testing the equipment on a couple of scrawny trees with NIE natural sciences researchers Shawn Lum and Ngo Kang Min.

Usually, it takes several months, working in teams, to measure every tree in a 2ha Bukit Timah study site, Ms Ngo said.

It is a painstaking process. While the new method does not replace all fieldwork, measuring trees digitally rather than by hand could cut fieldwork time by half.

So what would Ms Ngo do with the time saved?

'I would have more time to analyse the data,' she said. 'Maybe look at new projects.'

The system's parts still have to be trekked into the forest, but once they are there, they can be installed and left for weeks or months.

It can be solar-powered, and its range, cost and energy use depend on how many sensors are used and how often they have to transmit data, explained BioMachines co-founder Sven Yeo, 27.

Now, NIE's partner institution, the United States-based Smithsonian Institute Centre for Tropical Forest Science, is interested in using larger-scale systems at its field site in Panama.

These could also measure wind speed, temperature and even the strain that high winds put on trees.

Meanwhile, Switzerland-based Singaporean Dr Koh Lian Pin has turned a remote-controlled model airplane into a low-cost conservation tool.

In his studies of tropical deforestation, the assistant professor of applied ecology & conservation at the ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) needed quick, real-time information on tree felling, but found that satellites did not pass over his research areas often enough - and cloudy tropical weather meant the images were often obscured.

So Dr Koh, who is also an adjunct assistant professor at the National University of Singapore, and his University of Zurich colleague Dr Serge Wich used open-source software to turn a model plane into a drone that flies itself over a programmed course.

They attached cameras to capture photos and videos, and flew more than 30 test missions in Sumatra without a single crash, covering some 50ha in one 25-minute flight.

The whole system costs less than US$2,500 (S$3,160) and can be carried to a field site in a backpack.

At their website,, Dr Koh and Dr Wich have outlined how to build, program and use the lightweight craft so that scientists in developing countries can adopt the method.

In fact, the drones are already being used to monitor elephant habitats in Peninsular Malaysia.

'We believe conservation drones... might soon become a standard technique in conservation efforts and research in the tropics and elsewhere,' they wrote.