But as in the Amazon, you will only get so far in identifying problem areas if there are not enough resources to act on these findings. The Nature Conservancy uses its AI model to inform conversations with land managers about potential threats to wildlife or biodiversity. Enforcement in the Mojave Desert is monitored by the US Bureau of Land Management, which has only about 270 rangers and special agents on duty.
In northern Europe, the company Iceye began monitoring ice build-up in the waters near Finland with microsatellites and machine learning. But in the last two years, the company began predicting flood damage using microwave-length images that can see through clouds at any time of the day. The biggest challenge now, says Iceye’s VP of analytics, Shay Strong, is not the design of spacecraft, computing or refining machine learning models that have become commonplace. It’s about institutions that are stuck in centuries – old ways of doing things.
“We can more or less understand where things are going to happen, we can acquire images, we can do an analysis. But the piece we have the biggest challenge with now is still working with insurance companies or governments, ”she says.
“It’s the next step in local coordination and implementation to take action,” said Hamed Alemohammad, chief data researcher at the nonprofit Radiant Earth Foundation, which uses satellite imagery to tackle sustainable development goals such as eradicating poverty and hunger. “This is where I think the industry needs to put more weight and effort. It’s not just about a fancy blog post and deep learning model. ”
It is often not just a matter of getting politicians involved. In a 2020 analysis, a cross-section of academic, government and industrial scientists highlighted the fact that the African continent has the majority of the world’s uncultivated arable land and is expected to account for a large share of global population growth in the coming decades. Satellite imagery and machine learning can reduce dependence on food imports and make Africa a breadbasket for the world. But, they said, lasting change will necessitate building professional talent with technical knowledge and government support so that Africans can create technology to meet the continent’s needs instead of importing solutions from elsewhere. “The path from satellite imagery to public policy decisions is not straightforward,” they wrote.
Labaly Toure is the co-author of the paper and head of the geospatial department at an agricultural university in Senegal. In that capacity and as the founder of Geomatica, a company that provides automated satellite imaging solutions to farmers in West Africa, he has seen satellite imagery and machine learning help decision makers recognize how salt flux can affect irrigation and crop yields. He has also seen it help solve questions about how long a family has been on a farm and help with land management issues.
Sometimes free satellite imagery from services like NASA’s LandSat or European Space Agency’s Sentinel program is sufficient, but some projects require high-resolution images from commercial providers, and the cost can be a challenge.
‘If the makers know it [the value] it can be easy, but if they do not know it, it is not always easy, ”said Toure.
Back in Brazil, in the absence of federal support, Imazon is now tying ties with several state-level policy makers. “Right now, there is no evidence that the federal government will lead conservation or deforestation efforts in the Amazon,” Souza said. In October 2022, Imazon signed cooperation agreements with public prosecutors to gather evidence of environmental crimes in four Brazilian states on the border with the Amazon rainforest to share information that could help prioritize enforcement resources.
When prosecuting people who cut down forests in protected areas, the damage has already been done. Now, Imazon will use artificial intelligence to stop deforestation before it happens, by interweaving that road detection model with one designed to predict which communities bordering the Amazon have the highest risk of deforestation within the next year.
Deforestation continued at historical courses in early 2022, but Souza hopes Imazon, through working with nonprofit partners, can expand its deforestation AI to the other seven South American countries affecting the Amazon rainforest.
And Brazil is holding presidential elections this fall. The current leader of the polls, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, is expected to strengthen enforcement agencies weakened by Bolsonaro and to re-establish the Amazon Fund for Foreign Replanting Investment. Lula’s environmental plan is not expected until a few months from now, but environment ministers from his previous term predict he will make reforestation a cornerstone of his platform.