Artificial intelligence, machine learning, robots and drones. European scientists are developing a system to combat invasive species

2023 - 10 - 31

Large-leaved lupine, Canada goldenrod and giant hogweed. These are just some of the invasive plant species that after being introduced to Europe by humans have begun flooding the nature of the old continent.

Invasive species cause damage worth approximately EUR 10 billion in Europe every year, and, on top of that, they push native species out of the countryside. “Combating invasive plants is very demanding and difficult. It requires the commitment of a large number of people at the right time. This is getting increasingly more difficult as people generally lose interest in working outdoors,” explains Dalibor Dostal of the European Wildlife conservation organisation, which initiated a project involving robots and drones to combat invasive plants.

For the time being, conservationists are helped in removing invasive species by dozens of volunteers every year, but even their repeated commitment does not lead to the complete eradication of invasive plants from naturally valuable sites. That is why the conservation organisation approached leading universities, research institutes and startups to jointly develop a system that will eliminate invasive plants using state-of-the-art technology.

Naturally valuable areas will first be monitored aerially by drones equipped with technology recognising invasive plant species. They will be gradually improving in that thanks to machine learning. A drone will then send a signal to a terrestrial robot, which will come to a place where invasive plants are found and dispose of them.

The project will take advantage of the experience in identifying species acquired by startup FlowerChecker, which ranks among the world’s top companies in this field. “We plan on contributing to this project with our experience in identifying plant species using deep machine learning technology. The technology, which has been integrated under the brand of Plant.id by hundreds of mobile applications from all over the world, will thus be used for processing photos made by drones. As part of the project, the company will focus on maintaining the high reliability of identification and spatial location of invasive plant species with minimal requirements for the flight profile,” says Ondrej Vesely, CEO of the FlowerChecker startup.

The result of the collaboration of scientists and companies will be utilised not only by conservationists but also by farmers. “The project builds on the long-term development of autonomous and robotic systems at the Faculty of Engineering of the Czech University of Life Sciences Prague. It supports the long-term trend of process automation in agricultural production that is intensifying also in connection with a decrease of workforce in agriculture, the constantly increasing need to produce affordable food and the necessity to adapt to global climate changes,” explains Petr Novak from the Faculty of Engineering of the Czech University of Life Sciences.

The project’s success is conditional on the collaboration of experts in various fields. “The team is made up of institutions and specialists in order to develop innovative technology for the creation of intervention maps with subsequent application in extensive locations affected by invasive plant species including their elimination,” summarises Daniel Vejchar, a head from the Research Institute of Agricultural Engineering.

Its experience in operating unmanned aerial vehicles and unmanned aerial photography using precise RGB sensors will be put to use as part of the project by Gepoint. “We will focus on creating map documents, digitising results of photogrammetric processing data, that is creating digital terrain models, or laser scanning from drones,” describes Michal Cipera, Managing Director of Gepoint.

The experts will exploit the experience obtained within the first stage of the project in the future when developing follow-up technology. “Combating invasive species is one of the most important missions of nature conservation. It is not feasible to push these aliens out of naturally valuable territories spanning large areas without the use of modern technology. We will be trying to involve other experts and institutions in further stages of the project so that we can develop as cheap and user-friendly a solution for the elimination of invasive species as possible,” concluded Dalibor Dostal.

The conservation organisation has experience in eliminating invasive species mainly from the large ungulate reserve in the former military training area of Milovice near Prague, where it removes the large-leaved lupine and Canada goldenrod as well as the non-native boxelder maple and black locust in an area of 350 hectares.

Based on this year’s UN report, invasive species cause damage of around USD 423 billion per year and they have had an impact on the extinction of 60 per cent of plant and animal species. In addition, they pose a threat to food safety and human health. According to scientists, the amount of economic damage has been increasing four times every decade since 1970. The results of the research were published by the UN Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

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