The XPRIZE Foundation, which creates competitions “to solve humanity’s grand challenges,” last month announced a $10 million, four-year Rainforest XPRIZE. It called for teams to develop technology to identify and catalog biodiversity in difficult-to-reach areas. The ultimate goal is to produce an understanding of economic incentives to preserve standing forests.
Once covering 14% of the earth’s land mass, rainforests now occupy only 6%, according to National Geographic. With that depletion comes the loss of organisms that could affect climate, economic productivity, and human health. The conventional method of gathering data is dangerous and labor-intensive for people on the ground or too broad if conducted by aircraft and satellites.
“The recent acceleration of the Amazon’s deforestation, due in part to illegal logging and mining, as well as inefficient agricultural expansion, has added to climate insecurity around the globe,” stated XPRIZE. “Knowledge of the full biodiversity must be unlocked so that private companies, corporations, governments, individuals, local communities, and indigenous people who have demonstrated a commitment to preserving the rainforests will be empowered to sustain rainforests rather than destroy them.”
Opportunities for rainforest robot, drone surveys
“We’re asking teams to assess three of four vertical layers — the forest floor, the underlayer, the canopy, and the emergent layer,” said Jyotika Virmani, executive director of the Rainforest XPRIZE. “This is actually very difficult because of the rainforest density. Most drones can fly at the canopy or above, but below is more complicated. Some parts of the forest floor don’t see daylight, and it’s very humid. We don’t know the full scale of biodiversity.”
“In addition, not all countries allow drones,” she told The Robot Report. “We’re looking for innovative robotics ideas.”
The Rainforest XPRIZE is “solution-agnostic,” Virmani explained, so teams are free to devise different combinations of robots and drones to gather biodiversity data.
“We look forward to seeing how teams look at biomimicry for movement through the environment,” she said. “There could be ground robots, climbing robots, or swarms of miniature drones like bees.”
“There’s also the possibility for melded materials, such as freeze-dried carbon oxide, which is ultralight,” said Virmani.
XPRIZE criteria and possible insights
“While systems can use spectroscopic sensors, radar, gas detectors, or other methods, they can not damage the environment, and they won’t be gathering physical samples,” Virmani said. “We can now do amazing things remotely without having to take physical samples, which was the standard method in the past.”
The Rainforest XPRIZE will be looking for data about individual species, accurate counts of known species, and aggregate data.
“We want to be able to layer the data with additional data to show the value of maintaining rainforests,” Virmani said. “For example, the biodiversity survey could be layered with topographic maps, or whether a particular plant exists with a specific creature. It could find that certain portions are more important for carbon sequestration.”
“We’re also assuming the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning for getting additional insights,” she added. “Machine learning will play an important role in identifying species and easier and faster data management.”
“We could discover anything from new ecological interdependencies and biodiversity-climate connections to even new anthropological findings,” said Virmani. “We expect to find new species, so it’s truly a voyage of exploration.”
Testing in the rainforest
The Rainforest XPRIZE, which originated in the Future of Forests Impact Roadmap, will involve two eight-hour rounds of competition at locations to be announced.
“The first will be scaled down for basic demonstration in multiple locations, with the semifinal around 2022. That should be a lot of time to do solution development,” said Virmani. “In the second round, we’ll ask all teams to join us at a designated location in 2023.”
“So far, several teams have signed up, and early registration closes in May 2020,” she explained. “”Regular registration goes to June 30, 2020, and there are approximately three months for late discretionary registration.”
“Part of the $10 million prize total will be $500,000 in bonus prizes for taxonomic innovation, since the classification process currently takes months to years,” Virmani said. “We’ve picked rainforests, but once we have these technologies, they could be used in any forest around the world. We hope for game-changing technologies.”
Pressures and partners
Given the growing public concern about biodiversity loss, is four years too long to wait for robotics?
“We are losing rainforest quite rapidly, and there are a lot of efforts to slow down or prevent that loss,” acknowledged Virmani. “But for this XPRIZE, it takes a while to research the new technologies for what we need. The time frame was picked with a focus both on the urgency — we started designing it back in February and launched in November — and on the time we need to give teams around the world to develop these technologies.”
“We’re being underwritten by the Alana Foundation, a philanthropic organization, and we’re also looking for other sponsors,” said Virmani. “We’re talking with the United Nations, since there’s an important convention on biodiversity next year.”
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Welcome to the jungle
“We expect contestants to include academics, research institutions, universities, and corporations, as well as makers,” Virmani said. “One team so far is an international consortium of high school and junior high school students. Looking to the future, we expect teams in China and South America.”
“The competition is so universal because rainforests span so many different countries. We think of the Amazon, but there’s also the Congo, Southeast Asia, and Puerto Rico,” she noted. “Since 50 million people live around rainforests, we have a requirement that the finalist teams must engage with indigenous people.”
“Teams can register at Rainforest.XPRIZE.org, and we’d love to have lots of teams involved,” Virmani concluded. “We’ll gain momentum, but the first step is a team that really wants to make a change.”