We take, we take and we rarely give back. To mother earth that is. But things are beginning to change and technology can and will play a key role in the preservation of our natural world.
As global wildlife populations have declined by 52% in just 40 years, technology is needed to support wildlife conservation and help protect the future of our natural world. From habitat destruction, climate change, illegal wildlife trade, to name just a few, there are serious threats. But advances in technology can give conservationists the edge, meaning the difference between survival and extinction of some of the world’s most threatened species.
From satellite-enabled cameras, to new software for the reporting of illegal wildlife trade, developing technological tools that can enable conservationists around the world to better understand animals, their habitats and the threats they face, and will work towards protecting our precious wildlife.
Not merely restricted to researchers and scientists, technology also empowers the people on the ground. These people, local villagers, will be/are directly affected by the changes associated with environmental destruction.
For the past five years, a group of villagers in the delta of the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar has painstakingly planted 2.7 million mangrove trees in an attempt to begin to restore an ecosystem that has been disappearing for decades. The work, however, is laborious and the local nonprofit guiding the work wants to cover a much larger area–so they’re now turning to tree-planting drones.
Image courtesy: Man walks through mangroves in Burma, DVBTVenglish
The drones, from the startup BioCarbon Engineering, can plant as many as 100,000 trees in a single day, leaving the local community to focus on taking care of the young trees that have already started to grow. In September, the company will begin a drone-planting program in the area along with Worldview International Foundation, the nonprofit guiding local tree-planting projects. To date, the organisation has worked with villagers to plant an area of 750 hectares, about twice the size of Central Park; the drones will help cover another 250 hectares with 1 million additional trees. Ultimately, the nonprofit hopes to use drones to help plant 1 billion trees in an even larger area.
Drones are especially helpful since aerial spreading (usually from a helicopter) does not offer the same level of precision. “If you do aerial spreading–you just spread seeds wherever–maybe they hit a rock, maybe they hit a swamp, and they’re not going to survive,” explains Irina Fedorenko, co-founder of BioCarbon Engineering.
Conversely, the drone technology works in stages. As a first step, mapping drones fly more than 300 feet over the land, collecting detailed data about the topography and soil quality. An algorithm uses that data to choose the best locations to plant trees, and the best species to plant. Next, a second group of drones, flying low over the ground, automatically follows the map to plant seeds in custom, nutrient-filled “seed pods” designed by plant scientists to support each species; each drone can carry a mix of different species simultaneously. The drones fire the pods quickly enough to penetrate the soil.
So precise, in fact, that the drones can target locations for planting a seed within centimetres. “We can modify what to plant, and where, so you have the highest chance of survival,” says Irina.
Alongside precision, the drones are at least 10 times faster than humans planting trees by hand, while the process can cost half as much. It is also technically possible for a single drone pilot to oversee six of the drones simultaneously, thus reaching the maximum of 100,000 plantings in a day.
A complete game-changer that will hopefully offer great support to local villagers in Myanmar. The technology will be tweaked to best handle local conditions since mangrove trees grow in brackish water along coastlines, so the drones will have to successfully shoot the seed pods underwater.
Mangroves play several key roles in the area. The roots filter the water and create a tangled, protected network where fish can live. The trees also protect the coastline from storms. In 2008, when a hurricane hit the area, killing at least 138,000 people, the damage was likely much worse because of deforestation. And not least, mangroves play a role in fighting climate change; an acre of the trees can sequester several times more carbon than the same area of undisturbed rainforest (even worse, cutting them down also releases a huge amount of carbon).
And while there is still economic pressure to cut down the trees, by educating locals of the need to care for and protect the mangroves, as well as providing alternative incentives such as the possibility of creating an agroforestry project, this will go a long way to support the conservation efforts. So, rather than planting trees alone, the team will combine trees with crops that locals can use as an income source. “The foundation wants to guarantee that after the ecosystems are restored, people have the incentive to actually keep it and care about it,” says Fedorenko