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The impact of digital transformation on conservation

In the nearly 200 years since Charles Darwin’s famed HMS Beagle expedition, technology has accelerated our awareness and understanding of the environment and the world around us almost as quickly as industrialization and innovation have created new threats to that world.  Consider alone the drastic reduction in time and resources spent conducting observations and collecting and analyzing data – for instance, it took Darwin 5 years to traverse the globe collecting samples and methodically recording his findings by hand in notebooks,[i] which were then only available in hard copy in England. Today, scientists, conservationists and naturalists benefit from troves of data accessible online and updated almost instantaneously. 

“Today, drones, sensors and sophisticated cameras are essential parts of the environmental toolkit” and organizations such as Save the Elephants have gone from receiving one reading every 2 weeks when they first rolled out GPS tracking systems in 1995, to one reading every hour. [ii]  Per their website:   

“the technology provides near-instantaneous observation of the GPS location of an animal within seconds of it being recorded by an animal’s tracking collar. Data are transmitted via satellite or the local cell phone network. Behind the scenes, a set of sophisticated software algorithms monitor incoming elephant movement datastreams and summarize complex information[iii]

STE Tracking App

In 1943, roughly 100 years after Darwin set sail, Jacques Cousteau jointly invented the “Aqua Lung” (aka, SCUBA).  This was a pivotal tool that would enable ocean exploration beyond the purview of military and salvage divers [iv], and, in conjunction with Cousteau’s films (another form of digital transformation at the time), ultimately illuminated previously uncharted territory and the accompanying awareness of efforts needed to preserve and sustain those ecosystems.  Cousteau’s “Diving Saucer” launched in 1959 [v] laid the groundwork for deep sea exploration and to this day continues to provide a mechanism for observation and collecting data. 

Nowadays, much like we’ve discussed how robots are being deployed terrestrially, aquatic robots/ “robo-fish” have emerged as solutions for exploring smaller-scale underwater environments, mitigating invasive species and a whole host of other applications.  Similarly, 3D printing has been used to create artificial coral reefs.[vi]

The “Diving Saucer”

In case you were wondering if AR/VR extends 20,000 leagues under the sea: “US navy engineers have designed augmented vision displays for their divers – a kind of waterproof, supercharged version of Google Glass. This new tech allows commercial divers and search and rescue teams to complete complex tasks with visibility near zero, and integrates data feeds from sonar sensors and intel from surface support teams.[vii]

Back here on land, for those who have been following the news from the UN Climate Summit earlier this month, you’ve likely seen one of the statistics making the rounds that deforestation in the Amazon grew at an alarming rate of 22% in just one year (the highest in 15 years).  But what gets glazed over in that reporting is the technology behind the statistic that enables us to draw awareness to this issue in the first place. Brazil’s NASA equivalent, the National Institute for Space Research, developed a satellite-based system back in the 1990s to track changes in forest cover after international criticism over massive rainforest loss in the 1980s.  Brazil has since become the preeminent “standard-bearer for deforestation tracking and reporting” with its two signature deforestation tracking systems – PRODES and DETER – however both are satellite-based and thus subject to atmospheric limitations like the frequent cloud cover in the region.  The institute’s own website even acknowledges the shortcomings and what technological enhancements, like synthetic aperture radar, are needed: (INPE / Amazon Mission).

More recently, programs like Terra-i have emerged that take monitoring a step further with neural-network AI: a “computational neural network is ‘trained’ to understand the normal pattern of changes in vegetation greenness in relation to terrain and rainfall for a site and then marks areas as changed where the greenness suddenly changes well beyond these normal limits.”[viii]

But what about all of that lost forest?! Enter the drones.  More specifically, re-seeding or “forest regeneration” drones, who can quickly and accurately distribute seeds in inaccessible areas using data and automation: These seed-firing drones plant thousands of trees each day | Pioneers for Our Planet – YouTube.

And it’s not just lost land/forest that is being brought back from extinction vis-à-vis technology…some conservationists like Stewart Brand are even using biotechnology to “revive” the Wooly Mammoth by digitally transforming Asian elephant cell lines via CRISPR[ix] (cue Jurassic Park theme song).  Like @mwalters22‘s discussion on CRISPR, this is where the ethical debate is called into question.

Just as it’s not the technology itself but what the technology enables, much is still to be done with deploying technology and data as a force for good in protecting and restoring the environment.  Real-time tracking of elephant movement or deforestation can signal when illegal poaching or land use is occurring, at which point it may be too late or local governments may choose not to enforce regulations, while reviving extinct or near-extinct species may wreak havoc on naturally evolving ecosystems.

Worth a read:

Tracking – Real Time Monitoring – Save the Elephants

Monitoring deforestation: an interview with Brazilian space researcher Gilberto Camara (mongabay.com)

Tracking Amazon Deforestation from Above (nasa.gov)

12 robots that could make (or break) the oceans | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)


[i] National Geographic “HMS Beagle: Darwin’s Trip Around the World” HMS Beagle: Darwin’s Trip around the World | National Geographic Society

[ii] Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson Podcast; S4:E4 “Conservation: Next Generation Technology”, 11/6/2019, Dell Technologies

[iii] Save the Elephants, Tracking – Real Time Monitoring, Tracking – Real Time Monitoring – Save the Elephants 2021

[iv] Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson Podcast; S4:E4 “Conservation: Next Generation Technology”, 11/6/2019, Dell Technologies

[v] Cousteau’s Diving Saucer, Diving Saucer – Cousteau, 2021

[vi] How Technology is Saving the World’s Coral Reefs – A Student’s Guide to Tropical Marine Biology (pressbooks.com)

[vii] World Economic Forum “12 robots that could make (or break) the oceans”, Degnarain, Nishan & McCauley, Douglas 12 robots that could make (or break) the oceans | World Economic Forum (weforum.org) 9/16/16

[viii] www.terra-i.org “About Terra-I” International Center for Tropical Agriculture

[ix] Trailblazers with Walter Isaacson Podcast; S4:E4 “Conservation: Next Generation Technology”, 11/6/2019, Dell Technologies

10 comments

  1. bccryptoassets · ·

    Do you think CRISPR has the ability to bring back extinct animals? And even if we do, will they ever be the same as they once were? Could we see Sabertooth Tigers or even DINOSAURS back on the planet? With those outlandish comments out of the way, the tracking collars on animals are so beneficial for tracking wildlife. We can now see the exact footprints of where animals are going and track what they might have been trying to achieve. The 3D printing of coral reefs was by far the most mind-blowing statement in the blog.

  2. I’m not sure if we ever did a WSJ post on our Hitachi Vantara interview, but they had a cool example of using solar panels, old cell phones, and AI to monitor for sounds of illegal logging in the Amazon. Really cool stuff.

  3. I embrace the optimism within many of these examples that technology driven tools can help remedy the overall global environmental decline (while also trying to quell the notion that other technology driven tools have played a role in the decline of the global environment.) And I think your final paragraph eloquently reflects that duality!

  4. shanpopzaruba · ·

    These technologies could be critical in the repopulation of endangered species who are impacted by a lack of genetic diversity as a result of the small populations. I wonder how zoos plan to use these technologies to support their current animal population in a timely way, recognizing this issue is incredibly time sensitive. Thanks for bringing this into the class!

  5. parkerrepko · ·

    Great blog post and lots to still learn for me about digital transformation in conservation. As I read your blog post, it made me connect Darwin’s survival of the fittest claim to machine learning using a similar idea – bots training bots, keep the best performing & throw out bad ones, rinse and repeat. I also learned that b/w 50-80% of oxygen comes from ocean plankton, algae, and bacteria. Hope digital tech can help track that and limit our impact on a valuable part of the ecosystem.

  6. Great post, Christina! I think this very informational and I also like the optimism that comes with it. After all the harm that has come to the environment for the sake of technology, it is time that technology be used to best heal the planet. I’m definitely excited to hear more about the reseeding drones as well!

  7. Christina, interesting topic! Obviously conservation is a huge concern, but it is also a daunting task. I’ve been following a lot of the efforts in the pacific ocean garbage patch clean up efforts over the last decade and agree that it seems that although a tech revolution caused most of the destruction, tech is really the only solution to its hopeful fix.

  8. lexgetdigital · ·

    Great post! I’d like to comment on your last point: “Real-time tracking of elephant movement or deforestation can signal when illegal poaching or land use is occurring, at which point it may be too late or local governments may choose not to enforce regulations, while reviving extinct or near-extinct species may wreak havoc on naturally evolving ecosystems.” You hit on the exact balance that needs to take place here. Human interference (poaching) is obviously detrimental to the natural ecosystem BUT what about areas like Florida that require increased alligator and deer hunting so as to protect the rest of the ecosystem and avoid a takeover by those animals? Reviving near-extinct species may wreak havoc on naturally evolving ecosystems BUT what about all the less-technical efforts that have been used for years to save near-extinct species? It’s so confusing and the sad part, I think, is that there’s no right answer – until we get it wrong.

  9. rjperrault3BCCGSOM · ·

    Great post Christina. Great follow up to you’re presentation from a few weeks back building on digital transformations impact to conservation efforts. Many of these examples make me optimistic about the planets future. I do hope we can turn some of these technologies into the power to do good and not bad when it comes to the environment.

  10. bengreen123 · ·

    Great stuff. Too often we associate technological innovation with the displacement or replacement of naturalism. This and clean energy are great examples of how that doesn’t have to be the case.

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