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Man cannot save the planet all by himself. We need the help of machines. With everything from robots and drones to AI-powered webcams, scientists are increasingly turning to technology to address our planet’s environmental problems. The tools they use are helping scientists to find solutions to solve significant problems, test with the possible solutions, discover how they effectively solve problems and monitor wildlife and their habitats where they reside. A number of these advances are being implemented in Florida. “Instruments can collect an hour-long sample -which is a significant improvement over previous methods that involved manual labor and specialists who could examine them through a microscope and analyze them,” said Jim Sullivan. He is the director of the Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce.
The Save, the Manatee Club, uses cameras to watch manatees and their habitats in several state parks in which they are often observed.
Drones can aid humans with the challenging and dangerous job of assessing the damage caused by natural catastrophes, fighting wildfires, and assessing the condition of waterways and lands.
Nationally, these advances are generating a new sector. Mobile applications based on artificial intelligence technology are employed to determine distinct wildlife species and declines in the wildlife population. The same apps can also help assist in citizen science initiatives like that of Audubon Christmas Bird Count.
In 2017, the revenue of environmental technology products and services from the U.S. was about $342.2 billion, approximately a quarter of the $1.12 trillion worldwide markets, as per ITA’s most current data.
Most of the money resulted from technology for managing solid waste, which generated about $61 billion last year, as the trade administration declared.
Drones’ Nature-Saving Roles
If you can hear the buzz of an uncrewed aircraft above you as you travel through the public realm, the chances are that it’s flying to make sure the land isn’t overrun by animals or plants, which shouldn’t be there.
The use of drones or uncrewed aerial vehicles grew recently as land management began tapping the potential of drones to increase efficiency in managing their lands and assessing natural catastrophes.
These land managers comprise district water managers who serve The Villages and surrounding communities. For example, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which covers Sumter County and The Villages, uses drones to determine the effects of flooding.
District officials flew drones across the 16 counties of the district to spot high water levels in several rivers after hurricane Irma According to Susanna Tarokh. She is a representative for the Southwest Florida water district. In the past, she added that drones had surveyed flooding throughout the district’s Northern region following record rainfall in the summer of 2021.
“This technology lets the district see the effect on large areas, with minimal effort, and relatively low costs compared to the previous techniques,” Tarokh said.
Currently, the Southwest Florida water district is conducting pilot projects using drones to inspect areas being treated for invasive plants on the land they own and manage, Tarokh said.
Notably, the water district’s staff are planning to focus on Old World climbing fern, known as an invasive weed that is weed that overtakes native vegetation, shading it out, forming thick canopies.
The plant that spreads as it does since it reproduces using seeds instead of spores is a concern for land managers. It is an uncontrolled fire ladder carried into the native tree canopy in the words of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The pilot projects include pre-treatment and post-treatment surveillance,” Tarokh said. “Staff fly missions over conservation land in districts to determine areas that require treatment. This is followed by ground treatments and drone flights to assess whether the 95% elimination objective of the treatment has been attained.”
The results indicate that flying drones are more effective than other methods of locating invasive plants, both before and after treatment.
The St. Johns River Water Management District is a service that covers Lake and Marion counties also uses drones to control invasive species, specifically the aquatic weed Hydrilla.
In the 50s, when it was introduced, it was initially an aquarium plant. The hydrilla plant became an environmental problem by flooding rivers to the point that it was shading them out and destroying native fish and plants because oxygen isn’t able to reach them, as per the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hydrilla also poses dangers for boat navigation and flooding risk when the plants grow to flood control channels.
Drones aid water district personnel to examine lands that they remove pollutants from the soil and water as they did in the Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area, said Bill VanSickle, the geographic information system analyst at the St. Johns River water district.
Drone photography yields more accurate information than aerial photography dependent on humans because it can capture more images while the vehicle is in the air. VanSickle explained.
He also said he could connect the drone to his laptop and run image-stitching software to get a full view of the area examined.
“You can obtain information quickly without burdening the staff,” VanSickle stated. “We were using fixed-wing aircraft, which are costly. A few agencies are looking into the use of drones to fight wildfires. It was possible to take the Cessna and snap pictures from the outside, but the data was not efficient.”
In the past, teams from NASA and The U.S. Department of Agriculture looked at drones that were used during wildfires in California to find out their effectiveness in capturing data that will aid first responders at the scene. Joey Mercer, principal investigator of NASA’s Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations (also called STEReO), works in bringing together solutions from various public safety agencies to study the best way to use new technology, like drones, can be used to ensure a safe and efficient emergency response.
He studied a drone positioned to be used in the Dixie flame within California in 2021 to look for fire in a steep area. He found that it had collected thermal data to help firefighters decide if they were in safe conditions to continue. “It truly demonstrates the importance of information in their decision-making process. The time the moment that this information is made accessible to various decision-makers has a massive impact on the operations,” Mercer said in an official statement.
USDA studies on wildfires and drones revealed unmanned drones could gather data about the front of the fire and the winds within the area. This aids first responders.
Drones aren’t used yet for disaster relief in Florida.
But this could be the case, as the Legislature approved an act last year that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law which expanded the capabilities of law enforcement officers and emergency managers to make use of drones. The law permits the state, county, and local government to utilize drones to evaluate the damage caused by natural disasters and control the wildlife and plants on public lands and in waters.
Technology Helps Imperiled Species
Any winter day in Blue Spring State Park, an aerial view and underwater cameras will display manatees in the hundreds roaming around in the run of spring.
This park located within Orange City typically attracts crowds of international and national tourists. It is a spot where the number of visitors who gather on the manatee viewing deck could be as large as crowds lining up for theme park rides. The park was a constant source of manatee enthusiasts who were brave on the recent rainy, cold day.
Cora Berchem, director of multimedia and manatee research associate at the non-profit Save the Manatee Club, is the one who brings the camera’s views to the light. Her work could be as easy as watching a video on her laptop or as complicated as wearing diving equipment and swimming in the spring to look into the cause of a problem with a cable that shut one camera off the grid.
“Our group here appears fairly well-nourished,” she said, looking at the manatees’ health during a recent morning. “They all appear healthy and healthy. So far, I’ve seen some beginning to show algae on the surface.”
The cameras complement the manatee counts that she conducts along with Wayne Hartley, who spent more than 40 years as a researcher for manatees on the grounds of Blue Spring State Park, initially being a park ranger, and now as the manatee expert.
The two utilize a research canoe for their daily research that Berchem says could take as long as two hours. The two also draw and take photos of manatees to pinpoint the manatees they follow using the patterns of scars on their bodies. Collisions usually cause spots with motorboats. This is the most frequent cause of fatalities and injuries.
Berchem and Hartley employ the GoPro Hero4 mounted on a pole to take pictures of manatees swimming in the water. This Berchem claims there is a non-invasive approach to record the specifics of the scar patterns the sketches they draw are based upon. She explained that they are using the Hero4 released in 2014 because they had too many technological issues with older GoPro models. In a recent instance, Berchem conducted the count without Hartley. The count began at the west-end of Blue Spring Run and worked towards the headsprings, the primary water source for the springs. Manatees would often approach the canoe as research advanced and expressed curiosity about the canoe’s presence.
The cameras also entice their attention.
Blue Spring’s camera above water is set on a sturdy pole made of metal close to one of the spring run’s overlooks. Berchem said that the underwater camera is positioned inside a dome-housing close to the deck made of aluminum. They are stationary cameras. However, they have pan zoom, tilt, and tilt functions that permit Save the Manatee Club staff to control them remotely through accessing a control computer.
“I can control and operate them from my home desk,” Berchem said.
The importance of this technology is that it allows scientists to know the condition that wildlife is in and the habitats they inhabit without disrupting them, according to Sullivan, who is Harbor Branch’s executive director. Harbor Branch executive director.
“You shouldn’t be agitating marine mammals; they’re protected, or threatened,” he said. “(Cameras) take photos when they are triggered by motion. It’s non-invasive.”
Manatees found that were found in Blue Spring waters had belts around their bodies, with propeller-like gadgets protruding from their bodies. The devices attached to these belts function as satellite trackers that track manatees’ movements. They recently were released back into the wild after some time in rehabilitation and rescue facilities.
Berchem said they must be watched to determine how they are adapting to life out in nature.
She recently witnessed one of their rescues, an orphan knew as Pippen, who was discovered in July of this year within Daytona Beach. He spent the initial five years of his existence in manatee rehabilitation facilities such as SeaWorld Orlando and The Cincinnati Zoo.
“Since this will be his first experience out in the wild, they need to ensure that he can adapt to the wild manatee,” Berchem said. “They need to ensure that he is aware of the right way to act.”
Remote cameras can also be used to monitor other species. For instance, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission employs them to detect patterns in another keystone species, the Florida panther.
The year before, cameras stationed in the Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County were the source of what officials from the state believe are the first photographs showing Florida panthers mating, according to FWC.
“Breeding results north of Caloosahatchee River are critical to the Florida panther population’s longevity. Therefore, we’re hopeful that this mating event produced kittens born in the Caloosahatchee River that could have been born in November. 22.” FWC’s staff from the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute shared the message on Facebook and Twitter.
Satellite tracking technology, similar to that used to monitor manatees that have been rescued as they adjust to their natural environment, can be used to track bird migration patterns.
Its Gainesville-based Avian Research and Conservation Institute employs the combination of satellite tracking and high-frequency radio telemetry to determine patterns of migration and trends in population for species like the swallow-tailed Kite short-tailed hawk and the great white heron.
“We can observe how (species) respond to changes to their surroundings,” Sullivan said.
Mobile Technology Bolsters Naturalists
Birders can determine the species through its calls at the press of one button.
It’s the same for those who spot an invasive species and would like to be notified of it with a picture.
With the advent of smartphones and mobile-based apps, individuals can use more tools from the toolbox that can help them with their citizen research. The Villages is one of them. The Villages is the most prominent among local birding clubs. If members take notes of the species, they spot it at a particular location and upload their totals to eBird. It is a database managed at Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. (Ornithology is the study of birds.)
As with that of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the world’s most comprehensive citizen science research study, the observational data collected by eBird users is used to support a myriad of scientific studies that reveal patterns in population and the impacts on wildlife and habitats. This data also aids in government decisions regarding wildlife management. Information from more than 180,000 birders helped the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determine areas where bald eagles are the most common and least prevalent in 2021, per a report published by The Journal of Applied Ecology.
These observations were crucial because they covered all year-round habitats in contrast with other surveys and data that focus on the only specific season, according to Brian Millsap, national raptor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a statement on the research.
Projects such as eBird aim to draw the experience and knowledge of people who watch wildlife and turn it into something that can be useful to conservation and science, said Jenna Curtis, eBird project co-director with Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“Birds have a fascinating look and are colorful,” she said. “There’s plenty to be excited about, and you’ve got an entire community of people worldwide looking at them. We place these observations in the hands of those who can make use of them to conserve habitats and populations and improve things.”
The technology used by eBird helps Merlin. Another project from Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It utilizes facial recognition technology to determine birds by the pictures that users take or take of the birds.
A 2021 upgrade of the app added sound identification, allowing users to recognize the bird’s vocalizations. Curtis said it required “a significant amount of work” to get the artificial intelligence built into Merlin to be effective. “You have to teach the computer repeatedly and repeatedly how vital it is to determine the characteristics that make a mallard duck distinctive and the characteristics that make a chickadee’s call distinctive from others,” Curtis said. “Over and over, the computer gets better at identifying these characteristics by itself.”
Assistance from smartphones for citizen science doesn’t just apply to birding.
The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia developed a series of mobile apps based on the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS). This web-based mapping tool records sightings of invasive species all over the nation.
These applications include EDDMapS, which catalogs the database’s information about invasive species; IveGot1, where people can report any invasive species they encounter out in nature; biocontrol, which guides local, state, and national authorities to monitor releases and events of biological control for the invasive plant species as well as Squeal on Pigs, which provides information on wild hogs and permits users to report sightings they suspect.
Researchers from The University of South Florida also utilized the power of mobile technology and citizen science to create an online campaign that invited people to upload pictures of mosquitoes that live in the Tampa region on the application iNaturalist. The app, which is a joint venture that is a joint venture between the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, compiles observations from over 1 million citizen scientists who publish their findings of the animals and plants that inhabit their respective communities.
The mosquito pictures would be part of an artificial intelligence-based program to help mosquito control organizations monitor the spreading of disease-carrying mosquito species like Aedes Aegypti.
Similar to Curtis’s view that machines must be trained “over and over” to achieve the highest level of precision, more pictures in the iNaturalist database will aid in the AI training process, according to Ryan Carney, an assistant professor of integrative biology at USF who is involved in the study.
“Volume is the most important factor,” he said. “The more information you feed these algorithms, the more efficient they become.”
Supporting a Better Future
The ultimate goal of the technology utilized to tackle environmental problems is to leave Earth in a better condition than the way we came to it.
Sullivan Harbor Branch, Harbor Branch, sees this in his school — as well as across the state and throughout the country — by using several new solutions that are currently being developed or in development. Remote sensing, with drone and satellite technology, can provide scientists with information about the water’s quality and how much algae and sediment is present.
Water samples that contain genetics can reveal wildlife found in the area without being able to see them. “You could analyze to find out where they’ve been,” Sullivan said.
Technology advancements in aquaculture enable researchers to cultivate seagrasses that are dying in places such as in the Indian River Lagoon because of the pollution of nutrient sources and corals that continue to be under pressure due to the effects of climate change, overfishing, and corruption. Corals and seagrasses grown in labs can assist in repopulating habitats, similar to how to fish from a hatchery is fed into lakes and ponds to replenish these species.
Sullivan pointed out several exciting inventions in sensors that can detect pollutants from plastics and nutrients in water bodies. He claimed this technology could help identify problem areas and test the effectiveness of pollution-control techniques.
There are prototypes for sensors that could detect poisons in harmful algae blooms. Currently, scientists are working to make them smaller and secure enough.
“It’s not simple, but technology is becoming incredible at what it can achieve,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that technological advances and other areas give scientists more efficiency and speed in their studies.
Sullivan said these advancements are significant in an age where Earth has to deal with multiple concurrent environmental problems. AI particularly has proved helpful in speeding up the analysis of data, noted. “What would have taken an individual 500 minutes can be completed in just a few seconds at best, hours,” He said.
“We see the effects of climate change, more powerful hurricanes, greater temperatures, and changes in precipitation rising sea levels ocean acidification, nutrients pollution — just to name a few,” he said. “It affects our environment. We must start moving ahead.”