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Disruptive Technologies - Of Drones, AI and the Environment

01 May 2019 at 09:16hrs | Views
In this discourse I would like to propose the use of disruptive technologies such as drones equipped with AI (African Artificial Intelligence) to solve one of Zimbabwe's excruciating pain points. I do farming on a small plot in Mashonaland West (more like farming does me). When I drive there from Harare, I am outraged and pained as to the piles of cut down trees I see being sold on the side of the road as fuelwood, most likely for drying tobacco. Large tracts of forests are disappearing despite extant Environmental Management policies and laws against such. I even get more distraught when I drive on major national trunk roads such as the Beitbridge-Harare-Chirundu Highway, and see swathes of land now laid bare, yet years ago they were covered with thick forests. This reminds me of the conversations I used to have with my late father when we would take a drive to our rural home in Sengezi, Hwedza, through Seke. He would lament on how that whole Seke, Dema, Chihota areas were covered in thick forest when he used to roam the areas as a policeman. Now you drive in that area and you will be lucky to spot any sizeable bush. The thick forest was decimated. I know those areas as I was schooled in Waddilove and Goromonzi schools. It is not the same any more. Land pressure and the resultant wanton destruction of forests is the order of the day.

EMA, EMA where art thou EMA? I cry out. EMA (Environmental Management Agency) is the statutory body mandated to "manage" the environment. Well I have two choices of action. I can choose as an irate citizen to complain and toy-toy about the lack of "management" of the environment, or I can choose to assist as a good citizen by suggesting the use of technology. I choose the latter. In these days of AI and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles a.k.a. drones, a.k.a. quadcopters, a.k.a. quadrotors) it should be easy to man these forests and detect destruction, veld fires and bring the culprits to book. Yes, people need fuelwood for cooking and for drying their tobacco to make a living. But I am certain that alternative methods can be used. For instance the villagers/farmers have a lot of cows, chickens, and themselves as a source of substrate (their waste and not themselves) for biogas digesters. Our universities can develop a biogas tobacco drier prototype which can be copied in the various places. Perchance dung-cured tobacco may just produce a bizarre aroma and fare better than wood-cured tobacco on the international market. Moreover the biogas digester residue (a.k.a. digestate) makes an excellent nutrient-rich organic biofertilizer. I am also quite certain that solar-driers can be adapted for this purpose. AI will compute the performance parameters of these alternative technologies.

What prompted me to write this discourse? I was intrigued the other day when a certain gentleman rang my gate bell and asked to retrieve his UAV from my property. At first I was hesitant and irritated to open the gate as it was dark and I had security concerns. Also it was during my rest time, but curiosity got the better of me as I surmised from the Far Eastern accent that this gentleman was not likely the usual garden-variety robber. I opened the gate for the gentleman and quizzed him on why he was flying an UAV over my property. He politely explained that he always did so as a hobby and that he had all the papers (Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (CAAZ) permit) to fly the UAV. He showed me the drone path on Google Maps that the drone had disappeared over my property. I then let him look for it with the assistance of my landscape advisor. Unfortunately it was not found. However this fired up my MxQ (mixed intelligence composed of IQ (intelligence quotient), EQ (emotional intelligence), CQ (cultural of creative intelligence), SQ (spiritual intelligence) etc). So I started writing what came to my mind. I am bamboozled as to how I did not own an UAV yet.

Drones are a remarkably simple technology. I am amazed at how they have not been used extensively already from a commercial perspective. The history of drones is that they were first used as far back as 1849 when unmanned aerial balloons (UABs I suppose) were used by the Austrian army to carry bombs and drop them over the city of Venice ( Apparently this did not work well as the balloons would be blown back by the wind and drop bombs on the Austrian defense lines. Drones morphed from balloons to winged contraptions with the advent of the aeroplane, and have been used militarily since the early 80s. Commercial use only started around 2006.

Drones were put to good use recently when the violent Cyclone Idai struck the Eastern districts of Zimbabwe, causing untold loss of lives and damage to property. Econet Wireless, a local mobile company quickly responded by sending a couple of their drone pilots to assist in search and rescue efforts. It would be good to get the report on how these drones fared in that exercise. In Zimbabwe, drones are now commonplace at almost all weddings, family and church gatherings for taking aerial videos.

On the negative side I saw on one of my many pseudo-useful whatsapp groups, a video of a rebel leader somewhere in the Middle East who was addressing a crowd. The crowd looked up as they heard a whirling sound in the air. The next thing, a shot rang out and everybody ran for cover. I believe the rebel leader was shot. I have also read about drones being used to deliver drugs, cell phones and weapons into prisons. All technology has its downside.

Back to environmental management pain point. All we (EMA include) need are drones equipped with special AI software combining geomatic/geospatial/georeferencing (simply location), tree genera and species classification capability, 3D LiDAR (3 dimensional Light Detection and Ranging), and high megapixel cameras. The drones would be flown over an area to map and record the forest density or tree count, and the tree genera with accuracy. This information would then form the baseline. The drones' periodic and subsequent forays would then record changes to the baseline, hence it will be very easy to spot where trees have been cut with accuracy. This would also show the rate of deforestation over time. The wood poachers would be caught and brought to book. But apart from trying to catch the wood poachers, the information obtained would be invaluable for reforestation planning and replenishment of dwindling indigenous trees and shrubs, from the giant Umkhomo (Baobab, Adansonia digitata) in Matebeleland to the nutrient rich Mutamba (Monkey-orange, Strychnos tonga) in Mashonaland, and many other indigenous and non-indigenous genera.

Innovators and researchers are free to try out the ideas in this discourse and report back. Let's make Zimbabwe great again through disruptive innovation.

Source - Engineer Tororiro Isaac Chaza PMP
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