AI Can Be a Game-Changer in the World's Forests
Tue, April 20, 2021

AI Can Be a Game-Changer in the World's Forests

It’s no secret that forests cover more than 30% of the Earth’s land surface. They provide food, fuel, shelter, and medicine for billions of people across the world / Photo by: Roxana Bashyrova via Shutterstock

 

It’s no secret that forests cover more than 30% of the Earth’s land surface. They provide food, fuel, shelter, and medicine for billions of people across the world. Forests provide over 13.4 million people with jobs in the forest sector, and another 41 million jobs related to forests. With the current status of climate change, forests can help us survive.

However, forests are being killed through deforestation. Reports show that they are disappearing at an alarming rate. Between 1990 and 2016, Earth lost over 1.3 million square kilometers of forest – an area larger than South Africa. A 2015 study in the journal Nature revealed that 46% of trees have been felled since humans started cutting down forests. Over the past 50 years, over 17% of the Amazonian forest has been destroyed.

As a result, natural fires have become more intense than ever. Human-lit fires are also contributing to the declining number of trees. Live Science, a science news website that features groundbreaking developments in science, space, technology, health, the environment, our culture, and history, reported that more than 80,000 fires have burned in the Amazon as of August 2019 – an increase of almost 80% from 2018. 

Fortunately, artificial intelligence can help. In 2017, Microsoft created AI for Earth which aims to make the company’s AI expertise and technology available to those working in the areas of water, biodiversity, agriculture, and climate change. They wanted to bring their solutions to scale and advance sustainability across the globe. Other companies and startups are also integrating AI to help the world’s forests. 

For instance, SilviaTerra designed a software that can assess forests using satellite imagery and machine learning. The AI-powered algorithm can accurately assess forests to build a data library and powerful AI tools. These are needed to provide an up-to-date map of US forests for the first time in history. 

Detecting Forest Threats

Experts have emphasized the need for up-to-date, data-driven insight into the Earth’s forests. This can help in improving decision-making by the government, agricultural organizations, and the forest industry. Through AI and satellite imagery, 20tree.ai, a Portugal-based startup and member of the NVIDIA Inception program, developed a tool that would monitor forest health and detect forest threats. 

According to AZO, an online site that aims to drive innovation and foster company foundations based on space technologies and infrastructures, 20tree.ai uses a range of different machine learning models which are all stored in Model Zoo, a collection of machine learning models. All of these models have been trained on different resolutions and frequencies. Using optical imagery, the company can get an accurate estimate of the forest composition in terms of dimension of the trees, tree species, and the understory. 

This tool is crucial in detecting legal or illegal deforestation at an early stage. This information can be used to help prevent or stop infested trees from spreading further. The company uses large datasets, which contain valuable information about the health of trees, to train and validate its approach. This is extremely helpful because it would usually take months or years to comprehensively conduct manual surveying and data collection of forested areas. Organizations need to have proper and sufficient budgets and manpower.

"Thanks to the power of artificial intelligence and NVIDIA's GPUs, we are enabling faster, better decision making for our planet," Indra den Bakker, co-founder and deep learning engineer at 20tree.ai, said. 

Recently, Outland Analytics, a company that’s dedicated to providing technical solutions to the world's most pressing environmental issues, developed a tree-mounted device that uses audio recognition algorithms to detect when deforestation is happening. This device can send warning signs to forest rangers through listening for chainsaws and unauthorized vehicles. 

Rainforest Preservation

Computer scientist David Dao has been eager to know how much of the Amazon forest was lost after the huge wildfire. He developed intelligent algorithms that can autonomously analyze satellite and drone images. According to Tech Xplore, an online site that covers the latest engineering, electronics, and technology advances, this would help in revealing where forest coverage is thinning and to what extent. 

Dao has already planned to test the algorithms. He was able to get partners from the field, including Chile's forestry authority CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal). In January, they will be testing in the Chilean rainforest where they will examine issues such as how to improve the accuracy of predictive algorithms. This can be done by combining satellite imagery with pictures captured by drones lower down. What’s interesting is that the drone images can be extremely accurate, capturing details within 30 centimeters, unlike satellite imagery. 

"If we have drone images, we can also observe changes in tree species and detect changes in biodiversity," Dao said.

Dao explained that these algorithms can recognize which areas are forested and whether these areas are shrinking through reading sequences. These sequences consist of individual images strung together in chronological succession. At the same time, these intelligent algorithms can predict where the rainforest will recede in the near future. They can identify how road systems and forest coverage change over time by comparing these chronologically sequential aerial views. 

AI has the huge potential to help save not only our forests but also our whole planet. Through its advancements, we can have a greater view of looking into how Earth has been being destroyed, and finally take action. 

AI has the huge potential to help save not only our forests but also our whole planet. Through its advancements, we can have a greater view of looking into how Earth has been being destroyed, and finally take action / Photo by: streetflash via Shutterstock