5 emerging technologies to accelerate nature restoration

Zeno Prast
September 14, 2022

The goal of nature restoration is to assist in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ecosystems that are still intact. This will result in healthier ecosystems, with richer biodiversity and larger stores of greenhouse gases. All kinds of ecosystems can be restored, including forests, wetlands and oceans and restoration initiatives can be launched by almost anyone, from governments and development agencies to businesses, communities and individuals. Emerging technologies can help these well-doers accelerate their efforts by allowing them to understand, develop and restore nature in new ways. In this article, we provide a quick introduction to 5 ways in which emerging technologies can assist in the monitoring, verification and reporting of the outcomes of important nature restoration efforts.

1. Watch the development of restored nature over time using satellite imagery

When was the last time you used Google maps to find your destination or checked where your uber driver was? These services use satellite imagery and gps to get an accurate ‘lay of the land’. Recently, academics have started using these technologies to create large-scale imagery of land to monitor disturbances in ecosystems, track reforestation and combat deforestation. A vast array of machine learning algorithms is being created as we speak to make sense of the endless streams of data coming in by creating comparisons and predictions.

For example, Terra-I keeps an eye on vegetation loss by comparing data from weather stations and measurements against previous data from ecosystems on the South-American continent. Afterwards it makes a prediction of how ‘green’ the land should be according to the data and compares the measurements against satellite imagery to see if the ‘greenness’ matches and can recommend follow-up actions.

Another program called LANDFIRE in the US creates a comprehensive mapping of the country’s ecosystems. By creating a comprehensive yet elaborate database of environmental factors, it serves the dual purpose of monitoring land-cover, endangered species and climate-carbon modelling (LAND) as well as helping local authorities prevent and suppress wildfires (FIRE).

2. Listen to the return of biodiversity with bio-acoustics

Everyone loves the sound of birds singing in the morning. But what may seem like random calls and noises to a novice, can be a massive source of data to academics. Using microphones and audio recorders in the wild, we can collect these strings of recordings and use machine learning to interpret, analyse and translate the data.

Listen to one of these recordings below:

This fragment was taken from an audio-recorder in the Australian rainforests near the eastern coasts. Some of the birds that can be heard in this fragment have been recognized as the Graceful Honeyeater and the Large-billed Scrubwren, the last one being a native to eastern Australian rainforests. This is but a short fragment, now let’s have a look at what a 24 hour fragment looks like when the data is analysed:

Bio-acoustics analysis

All these sounds can be distinctly divided into the type of animal and the specific species it belongs to. The biodiversity and animal density of specific areas can be traced and monitored to check on the functionality of the overall ecosystem. Furthermore, bio-acoustics provide a more detailed view of the smaller creatures and overall daily occurrences in densely forested areas. A camera can only observe that which happens to walk by its field of vision, while bio-acoustics can ‘observe’ a 3 dimensional area. The crawlers moving close to the ground and the birds flying in between the branches at the same time.

Lastly, bio-acoustics can also be used to protect ecosystems against poachers and deforestation. Human activity and tree cutting tools in action, such as chainsaws, can be detected by audio-recorders spread over rainforests. Detecting these activities and stopping them in their tracks is crucial to protecting ecosystems around the world.

3. Monitor and manipulate natural resources with drones

These little buzzing helicopters can also be a big help for restoring the environment. Drones can be used to help shed more light on satellite imagery because aerial photography is a little more in depth compared to photographs from space. Satellites can capture whole acres, but if you want to have a closer look drones are the way to go. Projects utilise drones for pre-project mapping and planning to get a lay of the land and create a plan of what to plant where.

Some providers are developing drones that are strong enough to carry payloads of seeds to plant over an area of degraded nature. In Panama, an experiment was carried out with drones to carry 750 seeds of mangrove trees to plant in a hectare in under 5 minutes! Mangrove forests are mostly set in muddy swamps that are difficult to reach with the needed manpower and equipment. Drones can drop payloads filled with seeds 2 - 3 metres above ground to maximise the potential growth. However, ‘ground troops’ are still needed to look after the trees in their early stages to ensure the trees mature.

In Colorado, drones are used to monitor large plots of land for both animals and vegetation. Drones equipped with infrared cameras are able to see if a Cottonwood tree is sick or not. Technologies like these allow conservationists to easily track diseases among trees and annihilate them at the source before they spread, prolonging the lifetime of the entire forest.

4. Keep track of progress on key variables with the internet-of-things

Nowadays almost everything is connected to the internet, people can activate their laundry machine from their office across the city and control the temperature at home before arriving. In the nature restoration sector the Internet of things can be used as well. Sensors connected to the internet are relatively cheap and more and more new versions hit the market each year. The sensors can be used to measure almost anything needed for nature restoration such as temperature, water pressure, moisture levels, humidity. Farmers can use these sensors to get the most out of irrigation techniques by connecting the sensors to their pumps. If the level of moisture or temperature rises or falls to a certain point then the pumps can act on it.

The small sensors can also detect plastics in bodies of water such as lakes, rivers and oceans. Projects such as the Ocean Cleanup and Seabin are using small sensors near chokepoints to detect plastics in watercurrents to direct the vessels and nets. Sensors are used throughout the project to detect plastic in the water and predict where it will go, a net is extended to intercept the plastic and sensors communicate when the nets are full and can be emptied so the plastic can be properly disposed of.

5. Capture the unseen with unmanned cameras and video streaming analytics

Some of the most beautiful camera shots in nature documentaries, like a mother polar bear with baby bears in hibernation, are captured with strategically placed trap cameras. These cameras can operate without the intervention of a human in an energy efficient manner, by only starting to record when movement is detected. This enables them to be much closer to the animals than humans could be, and can be used to track populations of mammals, rare birds and other forms of biodiversity.

In addition, cameras can create time lapses of developments that take a longer time. For example of a field of newly planted flowers to blossom, or plastic accumulating in a plastic trap. This helps nature restorers to take action when needed, as well as sharing the results of their labour in rewarding and engaging ways.

These 5 technologies continue to develop at a staggering pace, with countless exciting initiatives and innovations entering the market. Mature applications can provide a scalable and affordable way to monitor, report and verify outcomes of nature restoration efforts across the globe. By aggregating and openly sharing the data that is created, we can involve the expert community to analyse, review, discuss and develop new patterns and best-practices - further accelerating the all important mission to restore nature on our planet!


Rainforest sounds

Nature Based Solutions
Satellite Imagery
Internet of Things
Nature Restoration

More news

Restoring nature the right way: 10 principles

To usher in the Decade of ecosystem restoration, a set of 10 principles was established to maximise the positive impact for nature and human well-being across the globe.

Outsourcing nature restoration and the benefits of consolidation

When it comes to the E in ESG, many businesses these days still conduct their environmental incentives and compensation by themselves. They engage in multiple projects and find out that doing so, ...

Meeting 3 basic employee expectations in one go

Studies show that workplace initiatives with a positive impact on the planet also positively affect employees and the business itself.