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This imaginative tech is transforming conservation

ASU alumnus and student stand on a boat and launch aquatic robot
November 14, 2022

Conservation is a call to protect and restore life on our planet, and the need is urgent. But the scientists who guide this work are limited by the amount of ground they can cover. At Arizona State University’s Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, researchers are expanding their reach — and their senses — with labs that fly, drones that swim, cameras that orbit and other imaginative technology to study ecosystems around the world.

The center, a unit of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, leads environmental research that helps communities adapt to and address the effects of global environmental change.

“To do something at a scale beyond your visual, temporal or programmatic reach requires technology,” says Greg Asner, who directs the center. “It’s not the answer to conservation, but you won’t get the conservation done without it.”

photo of interior of GAO shows two front-facing chairs, two chairs facing large monitors and a copper sensor mount in the back

Step inside the Global Airborne Observatory plane and you’ll see a carbon fiber interior with computer screens on one wall behind the pilot and co-pilot chairs, a supercomputer hard drive the size of a small filing cabinet, and in the back a giant copper cylinder on a rolling, pneumatic mount that holds all the sensor heads. Photo courtesy of Greg Asner

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s … no, wait, it is a plane

The Global Airborne Observatory is a Dornier 228 airplane. Formerly a 21-seater, it has been gutted and crammed with an array of scanners and supercomputers, making it a high-tech hub for environmental science.

As the plane scans regions of the Earth below, it gathers a slew of measurements and uses artificial intelligence to get a picture of an ecosystem’s health.

Asner and his team help nations identify areas with the greatest variety of life, called biodiversity, to decide where to center conservation efforts.

“We discovered those with the airborne observatory, and then many of those became new protected areas — new national parks, for example,” says Asner, who is also a professor in the School of Ocean Futures.

Since joining ASU in 2019, he has focused much of his effort on mapping the world’s coral reefs for the Allan Coral Atlas. The project measures not just where reefs are, but also their health and the surrounding environmental conditions. This data gives governments and conservation groups guidance on where to set aside protected marine areas and where to focus resources.

>>RELATED: Read more about how Allen Coral Atlas tracks reef threats and drives ocean sustainability

illustration of GAO showing sensors, supercomputer and control panels inside. The plane flies over water and scans for high-res images, 3D maps and chemical signatures.

The Global Airborne Observatory takes three main types of measurements: 3D images for mapping, “hyperspectral” images for chemical signatures, and ultra-high-resolution images for detailed visuals. Illustration by Shireen Dooling

The plane takes three main types of measurements. The first, 3D imaging, uses proprietary laser technology to see beneath the tops of trees or the water’s surface all the way to the forest or ocean floor, and all the structures and life-forms in between.

It also takes “hyperspectral” images, which go beyond visible wavelengths of light to capture those across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. From these images, the team can tell what chemicals are present, which they use to measure oil spills or chemical leaks.

The third type of data is ultra-high-resolution images. If the chemical scans reveal a methane leak in an agricultural area, for example, the high-res camera can zoom in to see exactly which cattle paddock it’s coming from.

Saddle up, satellites

In addition to flying for the Allen Coral Atlas project, Asner is using the plane to prepare for an upcoming project called Carbon Mapper in partnership with Planet, an organization that provides daily satellite data. The project will allow researchers to see the day-by-day changes happening in ecosystems all over Earth.

Carbon Mapper’s two satellites, which are expected to launch in August 2023, have some of the same technology on board as the plane. Before the launch, the plane is flying over the U.S. to gather sample data. This data will supplement future satellite data as well as train Carbon Mapper’s machine-learning software to better analyze what it finds.

Once the satellites are in operation, Carbon Mapper will observe methane and carbon dioxide emissions, land use and agricultural pollution, and coastal water quality. It will also begin a new stage for the Allen Coral Atlas team, who will use the newer technology to improve their coral maps.

photo of ohia tree in bloom

The Hawaiian ohia tree is vulnerable to disease, but the Spectranomics research project may help conservationists track the spread of disease and find resistant tree populations. Photo courtesy of Robin Martin

Sensing some chemistry here

Robin Martin is the brains behind the Global Airborne Observatory’s ability to detect the chemicals in an environment based on spectral imaging. Through her research project, Spectranomics, she found an amazing second use for this information. She can tell plant and coral species apart based on their unique chemical signatures. This lets her see which species are living in a certain area.

Megan Seely, an ASU geography graduate student, is using Spectranomics to tell apart different varieties of ohia, a tree that grows in Hawaii. She hopes to map the spread of a disease called rapid ohia death to find out if some types of ohia are more resistant than others.

“Spectranomics was developed to expand our knowledge of how remote sensing properties, particularly spectra, measure the underlying chemistry that has evolved through time,” says Martin, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning and a core faculty member of the center.

Martin had to do a lot of groundwork before the observatory plane was able to do its remote sensing from the sky. To develop this method, she sampled tropical trees, ground up their leaves in the lab, measured 23 chemical traits from each sample, and then used statistical analysis to match those traits to spectral signatures that the plane can recognize. Her lab has archived over 10,000 tree species.

“One of the advantages of being able to use remote sensing is that you can take measurements in places that you can’t physically get to, and you can also look at patterns over much larger areas, which then reveal more about the landscape than if you’re walking around measuring plots, for example,” she says.

In the future, she will be able to tap into Carbon Mapper’s sensing power to take measurements more frequently than she can with the plane.

>>RELATED: Watch Asner and research collaborator Martin in a new YouTube Originals documentary about leaders who are addressing the planet’s environmental crisis

Grad student checks drone equipment on a boat

Engineering graduate student Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran checks drone equipment on an ocean field trip during the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences’ Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) program. Photo courtesy of Jnaneshwar Das

Seaworthy robot crew

Jnaneshwar Das, director of the Distributed Robotic Exploration and Mapping Systems (DREAMS) Labbuilds teams of autonomous bots and drones that gather environmental data. As a core faculty member in the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science, he is developing underwater drones and other robots to analyze the ocean floor in collaboration with Asner and Martin.

Typically, they need divers to take mapping equipment underwater to calibrate the plane’s measurements. Using drones that learn from scientists and collaborate with them means more reef coverage and less required diving time.

“Technology can make us more efficient and can kind of expand our senses. It helps us to do dull and dangerous things,” says Das, who is also an assistant research professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “There’s a symbiosis that’s happening.”

Since the project’s beginnings as a sketch of an underwater drone on a napkin, it has grown into a veritable crew of seafaring bots, including the underwater drone, small flying drones, trebuchet-launched cameras and a robotic boat that ferries all of them over the water.

Last summer, DREAMS Lab collaborated with the Bermuda Institute of Oceanic Sciences (BIOS) to create an educational course for Bermudian youths through the Mid-Atlantic Robotics IN Education (MARINE) program. BIOS announced a partnership with ASU last year and is now part of the Global Futures Laboratory.

Two ASU students from the lab spent part of their summer in Bermuda testing the DREAMS Lab equipment in the ocean and using it to introduce marine technology to students from the MARINE program.

Rodney Staggers Jr., now an engineering alumnus, and Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran, an engineering graduate student, worked together on building and testing the drones in Arizona so they could withstand the ocean’s extreme conditions. Saravanakumaran focused on the “brains” of the drones, the automation software that guides them, while Staggers concentrated on the “bodies” by designing their durable hardware. Throughout the process, they learned from each other’s specialties and gained an appreciation for what engineering has to offer the planet.

satellite image of tributary flowing into sea, with illustration of phytoplankton, sediment and colored dissolved organic matter

Satellites and machine learning help ASU researcher Jiwei Li gather information about water quality by measuring aspects like cloudiness, colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM) and the chlorophyll present in phytoplankton. Image courtesy of Jiwei Li

The change of tides

Jiwei Li uses satellite images and machine learning to study shallow water quality. Li is part of the center’s core faculty and is an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Shallow water is not as widely studied as deep ocean water, but it’s vital to the planet’s health. It is home to precious coral reefs, carbon-capturing seagrass and other aquatic wildlife, and it’s often a place where the land’s nutrients and pollutants flow into the water.

Thomas Ingalls is a geological sciences graduate student working in Li’s lab. He sees shallow water as an important resource for nations seeking to lower their carbon emissions. That’s because these aquatic environments are also good at storing carbon.

By gathering millions of shallow water spectral images from satellites around the world, Li’s team creates regional mosaic maps. Machine learning helps turn that data into information about the water's quality by measuring aspects like cloudiness, amount of dissolved organic matter and amount of the photosynthesis pigment chlorophyll a. They also map coral reefs and monitor their health in collaboration with the Allen Coral Atlas project.

“The water quality and turbidity are especially dynamic. It’s not like a forest that doesn’t change much in one or two years. Water might change day by day,” Li says. “We need to use as many satellites as possible to increase the chances that we observe the water conditions.”

The Carbon Mapper satellites will be able to see over 50 times as many spectral bands as traditional satellites, promising a wealth of data. The technology will boost Li and Ingalls’ ability to detect water quality, carbon content, microbe species, seagrasses and pollution sources.

Knowledge makes the best policy

The Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science doesn’t stop at using its tech for research. A defining trait of the center is its goal to turn its findings into action, including helping to create informed policies.

Part of that process involves closing the gap between policymakers and experts such as Indigenous communities and scientists.

“In conservation research, there are traditional knowledges that come from people conserving and utilizing their areas for many generations,” Martin says. “Technology brings numbers to what is already known by those communities, but it acts as a way to translate information. It can give a visual picture that is sometimes more helpful to when you want to go to a policymaker and explain why we need to protect an area.”

Li adds, “Sometimes the people using the technology don’t have a clear sense that what they can do can actually help people in policymaking. And policymakers don’t know what the technology side can give them. The Allen Coral Atlas is an example of a beautiful bridge that connects both.”

The Allen Coral Atlas has helped nations’ leaders understand how to meet their goals for the 30 by 30 initiative, an agreement by over 100 countries that aims to protect 30% of Earth’s land and ocean by 2030. And it’s only one of many efforts at the center aiming for action and better policy. The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean Division has used Li’s satellite work to plan its coral conservation efforts in that region. Martin’s use of Spectranomics in Peru led to the creation of a new national park. Seely is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service and Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources to help protect ohia. And the Global Airborne Observatory has helped the state of Hawaii act to protect its coral reefs.

While technology has advanced researchers’ ability to understand the environment, the need for this information continues to grow beyond what they can provide. Even planes can only travel so far in a day.

The satellite technology from Carbon Mapper will be the next big advancement to help close this gap, giving policymakers around the world more immediate access to the knowledge they need and making an environmentally sustainable future possible all the sooner.

The research efforts described in this article are funded in part by Vulcan Inc., Pew Trust, Avatar Alliance Foundation, Dalio Philanthropies, and the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation.

Top photo: Alumnus Rodney Staggers Jr. and grad student Aravind Adhith Pandian Saravanakumaran stand on a boat in Bermuda and launch their small robotic boat, which ferries several other pieces of equipment.

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