Words by Harry Smith
We entered the year 2020 at a critical point in deforestation across the Amazon, but in what was meant to be a blockbuster year for climate activism, the plans for change in our foundational forestry practises were upended by the covid-19 pandemic. Global companies facing the financial impact of the pandemic turned their backs on the beckoning climate breakdown, channelling their energy and attention on economic struggles instead. However, thanks to recent advancements in technology and robotic engineering, developers may have just found the key in the deforestation fight.
Many people believe that global governing bodies should be more active in tackling the downfall of the Amazon, although a pair of robotic foresters may be the world’s answer to overcoming deforestation. Developers of Milrem Robotics and the University of Tartu, both based in Estonia, have been working on two robotic, autonomous foresters that work together to plant thousands of seedlings in just a number of hours. With an estimated 3500 seedlings planted within a 5-6 hour period these robotic foresters demonstrate the potential to plant trees quicker than they are being cut down. The ‘planter’ robot works alongside a ‘brush cutter’ driverless vehicle that plants seedlings as well as recording the location of each new tree. The brush cutter robot follows the planter on each journey, removing vegetation around the seedlings and tidying up. While precise navigation is challenging and requires a series of GPS, cameras and 3D geometrics sensors, Gert Hankewitz of Milrem Robotics cites how the robot foresters exert less pressure on the soil than human feet, making the robotic duo better for the environment than manual foresters. Developers are currently tackling the challenge posed by the chaotic environment of a typical rainforest – self-driving cars follow open roads with markings and lanes, whereas navigating around a natural forest can be fairly unpredictable. By using simulation mechanics developers are teaching the robotic foresters how to identify and work round obstacles, without getting stuck, toppling over and damaging the environment. The hope is that one day these robotic foresters will cost less and work quicker than manual forest workers to lead the way in overcoming deforestation.
Last year saw many of the world’s forests engulfed in flames, from the Australian bushfires that killed over a billion local animals to the wildfires in northern California that burned more than 23,000 acres of land over just a few days. While the number of fires in the Amazon rainforest rose 20% in June to a 13-year monthly high and a total of 2,248 first detected – up from 1,880 from the previous year. This year, deforestation is at tipping point, and we must find a way to produce foods that benefits the local climate environments and protects wildlife, carbon sinks, and indigenous people.
Rainforest annihilation occurs in mass areas of the Amazon to make way for commodities such as palm oil, soy and timber that are used in several million everyday products. To meet the demand for products such as upland rice, manioc, and corn, small plantations are built across the amazon, clearing thousands trees in its wake, although cattle pastures remain the dominant crop, occupying vast areas of the Amazon basin, specifically in locations such as those in Para and Math Grosso. Perennial crops meet the growing demands of coffee and cocoa, ensuring that the natural splendour of the tropical rainforest is enshrined within commercial produce. To make room for these crops, thousands of trees are cut down, destroying carbon sinks and releasing emissions into the atmosphere that causes global ramifications.
With governing bodies and global brands currently in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, enabling robots may be the key in tackling a deforestation problem that requires immediate action. The development of these robotic foresters is set to be completed by the end of the year.