Advancing technology can underpin better environmental management. But we need to develop and use the right tools in the right way.
The human race has never been more knowledgeable, more connected or more capable than it is now. Technology, in its many guises, has enhanced the life of virtually every global citizen - through energy, healthcare, food, transport and jobs. We dream of living longer, of understanding the myriad complexities of time and matter, of colonising the Solar System and beyond.
For those involved in ecology and environmental management, the whirlwind pace of technological development is understandably exciting. New tools and techniques are allowing practitioners across the globe to perform more effectively, more cooperatively, at lower cost and greater scale as they tackle pressing and complex problems such as climate change and biodiversity decline.
Today, the growing mobility, affordability and connectivity of tools for data collection and analysis - from DNA sequencers and camera traps to GIS systems and photo sharing apps - is revolutionising how we research, monitor and restore our natural environment. Developments in areas such as artificial intelligence, virtual reality, the Internet of Things and the blockchain suggest further radical change. Remote sensing and visual representation technologies are evolving rapidly through increasingly sophisticated satellites and drones, with Movebank (an online animal tracking database) recently posting dramatic videos depicting global animal movement.
Yet for all its burgeoning potential, technology also poses ecologists with a host of challenges. As it gives rise to new disciplines that we need to shape, apply and master, we are all learning. This learning process encompasses evolving scientific fields such as drone and soundscape ecology and groundbreaking techniques such as eDNA analysis. And in an era of unprecedented access to biodiversity and conservation data, it also involves the development of decision support tools that can help others process information and knowledge in more informative, standardised ways.
Challenges also abound in the practical application of technology. Camera traps, although arguably invaluable for science, are making wilderness less wild and may change animal behaviour, while drones have been proven to increase animal stress (Pazmany, 2018).
Going forwards, new principles may need to be put in practice to help govern, regulate and provide ethical guidance for the use of conservation technology. Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics may no longer seem so far fetched, particularly with robots already combing Caribbean reefs to remove lionfish.
To maximise its effectiveness, conservation technology needs to be as collaborative as possible. Tech start-ups, policy makers, NGOs, big business, the finance sector, local communities and environmental consultancies all need to come together to build a conservation technology community that identifies challenges and develops and deploys innovative solutions as rapidly as possible.
It is in this spirit of collaborative innovation that Ecosulis has just launched its Rewilding Tech Challenge. The challenge is open to any UK-based individual, team or company willing to work with Ecosulis on the development of rewilding-related technology, and has a first prize of £5000. Creating conservation technology development and enterprise hubs to catapult solutions into the field is one of the primary drivers for the contest.
"We now have an opportunity to define a shared vision for how technology can have maximum impact on conservation practice," says Ecosulis managing director Cain Blythe. "The idea of the challenge is to introduce new tech talent and ideas into the field of rewilding, and hopefully develop a solution that makes a real difference to practical conservation."
Last but not least, advances in technology are now leading to a generation of new and improved biodiversity indicators, characterised by the rigorous use of large, "live", globally accessible datasets, cutting edge sensing and sophisticated, software-based modelling. To keep the practice of environmental management moving forwards, we need to find ways of integrating these new indicators into traditional monitoring frameworks.
While the initial consultation phase passed, the draft indicator framework for the 25 Year Environment Plan is an opportunity to marry the old and new. DEFRA's proposed update of its Biodiversity Metric is still based on sampling taxa such as birds and butterflies. Underpinned by new technology, contemporary research shows that previously unfashionable groups such as bryophytes are far more versatile indicators of biodiversity, as well as air and water quality.
Today, bryophytes can be rapidly sampled using eDNA techniques. Ecosulis's versatile Biodiversity Quality Calculator can analyse data collected using a variety of traditional and more progressive methodologies, allowing changes in biodiversity to be measured accurately and efficiently.
"Technological progress brings the prospect of better biodiversity indicators and a step change in the immediacy and accuracy of outputs," says Ecosulis scientific advisor and BQC creator Dr. Alan Feest. "Across the sector, it's time to take stock of the opportunities technology offers as we look to develop future-oriented indicator strategies and tools."