The world of Ancient Rainforests meets High Tech Remote Sensing for a sustainable future.
In recent years, Space4Good has undertaken the mammoth task of developing an integrated restoration and agroforestry monitoring and management platform, Re-Forest-ER. Under this arm, our team along with inspiring and driven partners like Dr. Willie Smits of the Masarang Foundation and Arsari Enviro Industri, have developed modules dedicated toward: illegal logging detection and prediction, biomass assessments, fire risk, and alert systems, and route optimization for mitigation. Most recently, the team has embarked on the XPRIZE Rainforest Challenge, which aims at innovative ways of autonomously detecting forest species composition. How challenging could that be?"
Video 1: Day 1, Indonesia 2022, Source: https://www.youtube.com/@space4good491
This November, the Space4Good team headed across to Indonesia to embark on a career-long dream of monitoring the rainforest in person. Processing its priceless data to better monitor, report and verify its intricate composition to the world. During this trip, our team found themselves right at the heart of the East Kalimantan Rainforest, which has been severed by swaths of timber concessions that have left green, fruitless dessert scars between the biodiversity meccas that remain.
Here, we set out on 3 distinct missions:
1. Collect precious high-resolution data using LiDAR, multispectral, and thermal drone imagery;
2. Testing various data acquisition approaches and datasets for ideal outputs on species recognition; and
3. Validating in the field our deforestation detections of late to better understand challenges, set up capacity-building, and refine our reporting parameters and thresholds.
We arrived on a humid Sunday evening on the docks of Balikpapan Bay. Met by speedboats, our team and luggage were loaded to be transported across the bay to the ITCIKU compound of Arsari Enviro Industri, commonly known by the locals as Rimba Room. Overwhelmed by the sheer sense of adventure, we embarked on our speed boat trip. The cover of the night made it hard for the team to notice the surrounding paradise that was to be our home for the coming week.
Image 1: Late night speed boat trip, Balikpapan Bay, Indonesia, 2022
Us for Nature
Despite what we considered to be a comprehensive understanding of the trials that our partners endured in the field, we were about to be rudely awakened to the harsh realities that are nature conservation efforts/work, as well as land and people management. It seemed that with every mission we willfully set out to achieve, we were met with logistical confusion, infrastructural failure, and, even more odious, the weather…
Nature for us
This was a humbling learning journey. Not only did we have to navigate and troubleshoot our way across challenges we thought we knew but had no clue about. We were also unwittingly being taught how to apply technologies through nature’s eyes. During many precious moments listening and learning from Dr. Willie Smits, we saw the immense connections between our ambitions for remote sensing monitoring and the current and well-versed capacities of nature itself.
Walking through the forest to meet one thousand-year-old Agathis trees standing sturdy as safeguards for a forest so biodiverse and full of seemingly magical resources, one couldn’t help but think, ‘how can this tree, so large and wise, be so vulnerable? And how can we small, naive and fundamentally destructive beings help this millennial tree?’. “Look to nature. It has all the answers,” says Willie. Sage advice. Looking down at our boots, engulfed by ravenous leeches, we screech at the prospect of our own blood being spilled on already war-torn lands. “They are sensing your warmth,” chuckles Willie. Heat! These little creatures are the original thermal sensor!
Image 2: 1000-year-old Agathus Tree, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, 2022
Similarly, we contemplated how best to specify what species of tree inhabits the forest worlds we are monitoring through the lens of our drones. It was then that Willie introduced us to his saved orangutan friends and wards, Benny, Bonny, and Bento; all salvaged from a surely terrible life of exploitation. It was through Willie that we also learned some tremendous facts about these incredibly charismatic creatures. One such fact was that orangutans could differentiate plants purely by their colour green. Not by leaf shape, bark types and spore structure, like us humans. They see far more colours in comparison to what humans are capable of recognizing. It is via this method that they know the jungle.
This together with the leech episode, brought us right back to the fundamentals of our craft. Multispectral data can allow us to capture more colours in order to identify a higher number of species. When thermal data is added into the mix, we reveal the different heat retention of trees allowing us to establish to a degree of certainty the species composition of the forest below.
Inspired for the future
With all this in mind, we persevered. We collected the data, attempted validations and set up contingency plans. As do our partners! Day after day, year after year. We also managed to achieve an incredible breakthrough in species identification using the combination of drone LiDAR, and multispectral and thermal data we collected. In this respect, we as remote sensing specialists and earth’s storytellers have much to learn from the capabilities already embedded in nature’s fabric.
Stay tuned for our future blogs elaborating on our success in data acquisition, testing and validation. What is your favourite animal with inspiring sensory powers? Comment below.
Image 3: Space4Good Team & Partners, East Kalimantan, Indonesia, 2022
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