The environment is a mess: out-of-control wildfires, deforestation, the destruction of coral reefs, pollution. Can technology help reverse climate change and the environmental damage done by our ancestors? Unlike the industrial revolution, technological advancements are no longer primarily powered by steam, iron, and coal mines. Instead, new technologies have led to more sustainable methodologies, better stewardship of our natural resources, and conversion to solar and renewable energy sources. And these have been shown to have an enormous positive impact on the environment.
Naturally, in an ideal world all citizens and corporations would voluntarily adopt better practices to reduce environmental damage. After all, don’t we want to leave the planet a better place for future generations? But let’s face it – voluntary compliance is difficult to obtain and planet earth doesn’t have time to waste. Instead, technological developments, such as automation and artificial intelligence, are helping mankind take immediate steps towards sustainability. There has never been a more exciting time for environmental technologies and innovation.
The following examples show how a wide range of technological advancements that are having a lasting positive impact – from small projects that focus on addressing a specific environmental problem, to large scales initiatives being rolled out on a global scale.
Under the sea
The ocean has an important role to play in preventing global warming. Did you know that oceans absorb about 30 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released in the atmosphere? Some of the last areas of pristine, untouched wilderness on Earth exist beneath the seas. Marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, are under constant threat from the effects of climate change, pollution, unsustainable fishing practices, the growing offshore industry, and human exploration. Roboticists and engineers are working to address this problem, searching for new ways to create technological advancements to inspect, maintain, or repair aquatic life.
This is one smart jellyfish! In 2021, jellyfish are no longer brainless, heartless blobs – instead robot jellyfish are set to save coral reefs. Researchers at the universities of Southampton and Edinburgh have just released the latest aquatic robot – the robot jellyfish – which is designed to safely explore endangered coral reefs. Jellyfish robots take on tasks that are too delicate for human divers, such as the observation, exploration, and restoration of delicate coral reefs. Created by a 3D printer, they are made of soft, flexible rubber material and use small but powerful propellers to swim. These robots not only look like an Aurelia aurita (common jellyfish) but were designed to match its propulsive efficiency.
While traditional aquatic robots have been used for decades, few of these combine efficient travel with high maneuverability. The latest tests suggest the jellyfish robot can propel itself in a way that is “ten to 50 times more efficient than typical small underwater vehicles powered by propellers”. The development of autonomous deep-sea robots is likely to grow in the next few years, to keep up with offshore developments that increasingly put fragile marine environments at risk.
Solving the problem from above – and below.
By providing a bird’s eye view (or fish-eye view) of land and sea, technology is an effective way to make sure environment-related laws and regulations are followed.
The latest tech advancements are regularly being incorporated into wildlife protection initiatives, from monitoring endangered species to tracking poachers. Endangered wildlife can be tracked through drones, data and digital mapping. In Africa, increased poaching activity in Garamba National Park devastated the elephant population. In the 1970s, Garamba’s herd included 22,000 elephants but by 2017, it dropped to 1,200. In the past three years, Garamba reduced elephant poaching by 97 percent following the implementation of location intelligence that allows dedicated surveillance teams to continue to track and monitor each animal 24 hours a day – through a combination of GIS and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Sea creatures are also being tracked. In West Papua, Indonesia aerial drones are being used to track giant manta-rays – one of the world’s most intelligent and threatened marine species. The National University of Singapore has gone one step further, by not only tracking manta-rays but also creating manta-ray shaped drones. A finalist in Ericsson’s Innovation Awards 2019, these drones can be used for underwater surveillance to study marine biodiversity, measure hydrographic data and perform search operations.
And wildlife is not only being monitored, whole habitats are being dropped from the sky via drones – a novel way to tackle deforestation. Flash Forest is firing seed pods directly into the ground. This is the fastest and most effective way to plant a large number of trees; arguably 10 times faster than manual plantation by humans.
Fire was one of the first technological ‘inventions’ by mankind. However, we have always been aware of its destructive ability. Climate change has resulted in more frequent wildfires, which have had a devastating impact on property, wildlife, and human life – at a global scale. Between 2018 to 2020 Australia and parts of the United States were ravaged by bushfires. The Australian fires killed roughly 3 billion animals and destroyed 97,000 sq kms. Researchers are looking into how technology can provide more early protection to help avoid these apocalyptic scenes. Ericsson ONE intrapreneurs are currently working on a new design that will allow early detection of wildfires in remote areas using network extension, sensors and edge computing equipment. This technological advancement will replace satellite-based systems that are much slower and cannot detect small fires, and aerial systems with limited range. Most importantly, the new set up will allow low-cost deployment of network and sensors, which will make the solution affordable for underserved areas.
Reducing plastic waste
Follow the plastic brick road…you could soon be eating or driving on your old water bottles. Most of us are aware that the majority of the world’s plastic doesn’t get recycled at convention plants.
To solve this issue, researchers are coming up with a wide range of solutions – from melting plastic down to create roads, or removing plastic bottles altogether and making containers from seaweed. We might never look at a plastic water bottle the same way again.
But what is being done to remove more than five trillion pieces of plastic that already litter the ocean? Ocean Cleanup estimates it would take thousands of years and billions of dollars to tackle this issue through conventional methods alone (vessels and nets). The enormity of the problem dawns on you when you realize there is not one, but five garbage patches in the ocean. The largest, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is choked with 80,000 tons of plastic – this is equivalent to 500 jumbo jets. Ocean Cleanup brought together engineers, researchers, scientists and computational modelers to design a solution: long floating barriers that act as artificial coastlines, and enable winds, waves and currents to passively catch and concentrate the plastic. They have also gone full circle in their mission by transforming plastic extracted from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into sunglasses. This is certainly an example of how technology can ‘turn trash into treasure.’
Recycling old clothes
Everything old is new again! Here’s a staggering statistic: the production of one single pair of jeans requires 10,000 to 20,000 liters of water. To significantly reduce this water consumption, Swedish sustaintech company, Renewcell has developed a new way to reprocess old clothes – and uses 80 percent less water in the process. They are able to dissolve cotton and other cellulose fibers and transform them into a new, biodegradable raw material called Circulose® pulp. This pulp is then used to make biodegradable virgin quality viscose or lyocell textile fibers. With some 80 billion items of clothing produced globally each year, there is huge potential for recycling.
5G is creating pajama clad superheroes
During the corona pandemic, humans have been able to directly support the environment – by simply working from home in their pajamas. The world ‘shutting down’ had a positive impact on nature. There was an astounding improvement in air quality, and substantially decreased levels of air pollution – which even resulted in a population spurt for the honey bees. Water quality improved, and wildlife started to return to urban areas. Essentially, connectivity allowed society to continue to function during the pandemic, and less commuting saw less hazy skies. The rollout of 5G will continue this trend, with many workers finding that they can work from anywhere and enjoy optimal internet connectivity. In fact, Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25 percent to 30 percent of the labor force will work from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021.
An article on sustainable environmental technology wouldn’t be complete without mentioning renewable energy. Renewable energy has been a buzzword for the last decade – but it isn’t just hype.
Renewable energy, also known as ‘clean energy’, is collected from renewable resources. These naturally replenished sources include sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat. Some of the most recognized and important eco-friendly tech advancements in recent years have been in the clean energy sector. Renewable sources of energy like solar, wind and hydroelectric power have become much more widespread, as well as cheaper. And this sector is expected to continue to grow at a staggering rate. Global renewable energy installations hit record levels in 2020 – causing experts to predict that it will overtake coal to become the world’s largest energy source by 2025.
5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) is also set to rapidly change this field. According to 6GWorld, by 2030 IoT’s deployment and its disruption of various industries is expected to “save more than eight times the energy it consumes, resulting in net savings of 230 billion cubic meters of water, and eliminate one gigaton of CO2 emissions.” For example, IoT sensor technology on wind turbines could provide actionable information about lightning strikes, defective rotor blades or optimal wind direction, to significantly improve performance.
Imagine a world where all kinds of environmental technological devices and sensors were able to communicate without human involvement – from smart cars to IoT. Experts are predicting that cities of the future will be places where every car, phone, air conditioner, light and more are interconnected, bringing about the concept of energy efficient smart cities. And I am sure planet earth is looking forward to these technological advancements.
Technology is tackling some of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. There is still much to develop and improve, but initial results are pointing to exciting and helpful signs for the future of our planet. What will the next 10 years bring?
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