Man can’t save the environment alone. We need help from machines. From drones to artificial intelligence and webcams, scientists increasingly turn to technology in their work to solve the world’s environmental challenges. These tools are helping them identify possible solutions to resolve significant issues, experiment with those possible solutions to determine how effectively they can resolve problems, and monitor wildlife and the habitats in which they live. “Instruments can take a sample every hour — a huge improvement from past methods that were more manual and required experts who could look at them under a microscope and count them,” said Jim Sullivan, executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. Many of these innovations are taking shape in Florida.
The Save the Manatee Club uses cameras to monitor manatees and their habitats within several state parks where they are commonly seen.
Drones are deployed to aid humans in the arduous, hazardous tasks of assessing damage from natural disasters, fighting wildfires and surveying lands and waters.
Mobile apps built on artificial intelligence technology are used to identify unique wildlife species and declines in wildlife populations. These same apps also guide citizen science projects such as the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Nationwide, these innovations contribute to a growing industry.
In 2017, revenue for environmental technology goods and services in the U.S. was about $342.2 billion, representing about a quarter of the $1.12 trillion global market, according to the International Trade Administration’s most recent data.
Most of that revenue came from solid waste management technologies, yielding about $61 billion in 2017, the trade administration stated.
Drones’ Nature-Saving Roles
If you hear the whir of an unmanned airplane above you while exploring public lands, chances are it is flying to ensure the land is not overrun by plants or animals that shouldn’t be there.
The use of drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, increased in recent years as land managers tapped into their potential for efficiency in managing lands and assessing natural disasters.
These land managers include the water management districts serving The Villages and surrounding communities. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, whose jurisdiction includes Sumter County and The Villages, uses drones to assess flood impacts.
District staff flew drones throughout its 16-county area to identify high water conditions in several rivers following Hurricane Irma, said Susanna Tarokh, spokesperson for the Southwest Florida water district. More recently, drones surveyed floods in the district’s Northern area following record rainfall in summer 2021, she said.
“This technology allows the district to see the impact to large areas with minimal effort at relatively low costs, compared to previous methods,” Tarokh said.
Right now, the Southwest Florida water district is conducting pilot projects on using drones to assess areas treated for invasive plants on lands it owns and manages, Tarokh said.
Specifically, water district staff intend to target Old World climbing fern, a notorious invasive weed that grows over native vegetation and shades it out by forming dense canopies.
This plant, which spreads the way it does because it reproduces by spores instead of seeds, is a problem for many land managers because it acts as a fire ladder that carries into native tree canopies, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
“The pilot projects involve doing both pre-treatment and post-treatment reconnaissance,” Tarokh said. “Staff fly missions on district conservation lands identifying areas that need treatment, followed by ground treatments, and finally drone missions to evaluate if the 95% eradication goal of the treatment was achieved.”
So far, the findings suggest flying drones is more efficient than other methods to locate invasive plants before and after treatments, she said.
The St. Johns River Water Management District, which serves Lake and Marion counties, also uses drones to keep invasive species in check, particularly the aquatic weed hydrilla.
Introduced in the 1950s as an aquarium plant, hydrilla became an environmental nuisance by inundating waterways to the point of shading out and killing native fish and vegetation by preventing oxygen from reaching them, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hydrilla also creates boating navigation hazards and a flood risk when the plants expand to flood control canals.
Drones help water district staff survey lands where they are removing pollutants from the water and soil, like they did recently in Emeralda Marsh Conservation Area, said Bill VanSickle, geographic information system analyst with the St. Johns River water district.
Drone photography produces more accurate data than human-dependent aerial photography because of the ability to take more photos as the vehicle is in the air, VanSickle said.
He said he also can plug the drone into his laptop and use an image-stitching program to get a full view of the area that was surveyed.
“You can get information so quickly without bogging down staff,” VanSickle said. “We used to use fixed-wing aircraft, which is expensive. You’d rent a Cessna and take pictures from outside the window, but the data wasn’t effective.” Some agencies are exploring the use of drones in fighting wildfires.
Last year, teams with NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied drones that were deployed in wildfires in California to determine how effective they are in collecting data that can guide first responders on the scene. Joey Mercer, principal investigator of NASA’s Scalable Traffic Management for Emergency Response Operations (also known as STEReO), works on bringing together solutions from public safety agencies to determine how new technology, including drones, can be applied to safe and effective disaster response.
He studied a drone that was deployed to the Dixie fire in California in 2021 to search for fire in a steep area, finding it collected thermal data that helped fire crews judge whether the conditions were safe for them to proceed. “It really speaks to how critical information is in their decision making, and the timing of when that information becomes available to the various decision makers has a huge impact on the overall operation,” Mercer said in a statement.
USDA studies on drones and wildfires found the unmanned aircraft can collect data on the fire front and the wind in the area, which also helps first responders.
Drones aren’t yet common in disaster response in Florida.
But that soon could change since the Legislature passed a bill last year, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law, that expanded the ability of law enforcement and emergency managers to use drones. The new law allows state, county and local governments to use drones to assess damage from natural disasters and manage plants and wildlife on public lands and waters.
Technology Helps Imperiled Species
On any given winter day at Blue Spring State Park, a view of its above-ground and underwater webcams will show hundreds of manatees roaming through the spring run.
The park in Orange City typically attracts crowds of national and international tourists, a place where the number of people congregating along a manatee observation deck could rival crowds lined up for theme-park rides. It drew a steady stream of intrepid manatee fans on a recent cold, rainy day.
Cora Berchem, director of multimedia and manatee research associate with the nonprofit Save the Manatee Club, is responsible for bringing these cameras’ views to light. Her work may be as simple as an observation from her laptop or as complex as putting on dive gear and swimming in the spring waters to investigate a cable issue that took one of the cameras offline.
“Our population here looks fairly healthy,” she said, assessing the manatees on a recent morning. “They all look nice and robust. So far, I see a few starting to get algae on them.”
The cameras supplement the daily manatee counts she conducts with Wayne Hartley, who spent more than 40 years as a manatee researcher at Blue Spring State Park, first as a park ranger and currently as the Save the Manatee Club’s manatee specialist.
The two use a research canoe to conduct their daily study, which Berchem said may take up to two hours. They also sketch and photograph manatees to identify the manatees they track based on the scar patterns on their bodies — scars that typically come from collisions with motorboats, a common cause of manatee deaths and injuries.
Berchem and Hartley use a GoPro Hero4 mounted on a pole to photograph manatees in the water, which Berchem said is a non-invasive way to capture the details of the scar patterns that their sketches are based on. She said they use the Hero4, introduced in 2014, because they encountered too many technological issues with later GoPro models. On one recent day, Berchem conducted the count without Hartley. She started at the west end of Blue Spring Run and worked her way up to the headsprings, the main source of the springs. Manatees often approached the canoe as the research progressed, expressing curiosity about its presence.
The cameras also draw their curiosity.
Blue Spring’s above-water camera is mounted on a tall metal pole near one of the spring run overlooks, while the underwater camera is mounted in a dome-housing near the aluminum deck, Berchem said. They are stationary cameras, but have pan, tilt and zoom functions that allow Save the Manatee Club staff to operate them remotely by logging into a control computer.
“I can operate and control them from my desk at home,” Berchem said.
Such technology is important because it can tell scientists about the conditions of wildlife and their habitats without disturbing them, said Sullivan, the Harbor Branch executive director.
“You can’t bother marine mammals — they’re protected or endangered,” he said. “(Cameras) just take pictures when triggered by motion. It’s non-invasive.”
Some manatees in the Blue Spring waters had belts around their bodies with propeller-like devices protruding from them. The devices attached to the belts are satellite trackers, which monitor the movements of manatees that recently were released into the wild after spending time in rescue and rehabilitation facilities.
They need to be monitored to see how well they adapt to being in the wild, Berchem said.
She recently observed one of those rescues, an orphan named Pippen who was found in July 2016 in Daytona Beach. He spent most of the first five years of his life in manatee rehabilitation centers, including SeaWorld Orlando and the Cincinnati Zoo.
“Since this is his first time in the wild, we want to make sure he adapts to being a wild manatee,” Berchem said. “They want to make sure he knows what to do.”
Remote cameras also monitor other species. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission uses them to identify trends concerning another keystone species, the Florida panther.
Last year, cameras stationed at Babcock Ranch Preserve in Charlotte County were responsible for what state officials believe are the first images showing Florida panthers mating, according to FWC.
“Breeding success north of the Caloosahatchee River is critical to the long-term viability of the Florida panther population, so we are hopeful that this mating event resulted in a litter of kittens that would have been born around Nov. 22,” staff with FWC’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute posted on social media.
And satellite tracking technology, not unlike what is used to track rescued manatees as they adapt to the wild, also is used to track bird migration patterns.
The Gainesville-based Avian Research and Conservation Institute uses a mix of satellite tracking and very high frequency radio telemetry to identify migration patterns and population trends for species like the swallow-tailed kite, snail kite, short-tailed hawk and great white heron.
“We can watch how (species) are responding to changes in the environment,” Sullivan said.
Mobile Technology Bolsters Naturalists
Birders can identify a species by its calls with the touch of a button.
The same goes for people who see an invasive species and want to report it, along with a photo.
With smartphone technology and mobile apps, people have more tools in the toolbox to aid their citizen science. In The Villages, it is most visible among members of local birding groups. When members record the species they identify in a given place, they will post their tallies to eBird, a database maintained by Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. (Ornithology is the study of birds.)
Like the Audubon Christmas Bird Count, the world’s largest citizen science study, observation data from eBird users supports countless scientific studies that identify population trends and impacts to species and their habitats. It also informs government actions on wildlife management, as data from about 180,000 birders guided the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to identify areas where bald eagles are most and least common, according to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
These observations were important because they provided year-round coverage of habitats, in contrast with other data and surveys that only cover specific seasons, said Brian Millsap, national raptor coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a statement about the study.
The goal of projects like eBird is to take the knowledge and experiences of people who observe wildlife and apply it to something useful for science and conservation, said Jenna Curtis, eBird project co-leader with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“Birds are fascinating and colorful,” she said. “There’s so much to love, and you have a global community that is observing them. We put those observations into the hands of people who can use them to preserve habitats and populations and to make things better.”
The technology of eBird also supports Merlin, another project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It uses facial recognition technology to identify a bird species based on pictures the user takes of the bird.
A 2021 update of the app included sound identification, where a user can identify a bird based on its vocalizations. It took “a lot of work” for the artificial intelligence integrated in Merlin to become effective, Curtis said. “You teach the computer over and over again how important it is to identify what makes a mallard duck unique, or what makes a chickadee call unique compared to other birds,” she said. “Over and over again, it gets better at identifying these things for itself.”
Smartphone assistance in citizen science isn’t limited to birding.
The Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health at the University of Georgia developed a series of mobile apps built around its Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System (EDDMapS), a web-based mapping system that documents invasive species sightings nationwide.
These apps include EDDMapS, which catalogs the database’s invasive species information; IveGot1, where people can identify and report invasive species they find in the wild; iBiocontrol, which guides national, state and local governments to track releases and occurrences of biological control of invasive plants; and Squeal on Pigs, which includes information about feral hogs and allows users to report suspected sightings.
Researchers at the University of South Florida also harnessed mobile technology and citizen science in a social media campaign that encouraged people to upload photos of mosquitoes in the Tampa area to the app iNaturalist. This app, a project of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, compiles observations from more than 1 million citizen scientists to share their findings on animals and plants in their communities.
The mosquito photos would support an artificial intelligence-based system that would guide mosquito control agencies to track the spread of disease-carrying mosquito species such as Aedes aegypti.
Echoing Curtis’s sentiment that the machines need to be taught “over and over again” for the highest accuracy, more images in the iNaturalist database will support the AI training, said Ryan Carney, an assistant professor of integrative biology at USF who is involved with the research.
“Volume is really key,” he said in a statement. “The more data you feed these algorithms, the better they get.”
Supporting a Better Future
Ultimately, the goal of technology used to address environmental challenges is to leave the Earth a better place than humans found it.
Sullivan, of Harbor Branch, sees this at his institution — as well as statewide and nationwide — through a number of innovative solutions that either currently exist or are in progress: Remote sensing using satellite and drone technology can tell scientists about the quality of water and how much sediment and algae is present.
Genetic samples from the water can identify wildlife that were present in an area even without seeing them. “You could run an analysis and find out where they’ve been,” Sullivan said.
Aquaculture technology advancements allow researchers to cultivate seagrasses, which are dying in areas like the Indian River Lagoon because of nutrient pollution, and corals, which continue to face pressures including climate change, overfishing and pollution. Lab-grown seagrasses and corals would help repopulate habitats, similar to how fish raised in a fish hatchery are stocked in lakes and ponds to repopulate them.
One of the most promising innovations Sullivan singled out is sensors that would identify nutrient pollution and plastic pollution in a water body. This technology would help identify problem areas and verify the effectiveness of pollution control methods, he said.
Prototypes exist for sensors that would detect the toxins in harmful algal blooms, and right now scientists are working on how to make them small and reliable enough.
“It’s not easy, but technology is getting amazing at what it can do,” Sullivan said.
These advancements in technology, and many others, allow scientists greater efficiency and expediency in their research, Sullivan said.
AI especially has been useful for speeding the pace of data analysis, he said. “What used to take a human 500 minutes could take a computer seconds, if not minutes,” he said. These innovations are even more critical in a time when Earth faces a multitude of simultaneous environmental issues, Sullivan said.
“We have climate change, stronger hurricanes, increased heat, changes in precipitation, sea level rise, ocean acidification and nutrient pollution — you name it,” he said. “It has an effect on our environment. And we need to start getting ahead of this.”