The importance of integrating collaborative AI technology with ecological expertise to meet biodiversity net gain targets

18 Apr 2024 | 7 min read

The importance of integrating collaborative AI technology with ecological expertise to meet biodiversity net gain targets

Preserving and enhancing biodiversity is a fundamental priority in addressing the urgent challenges posed by environmental degradation. Many positive steps have been taken in recent years with The Environment Act 2021 in the UK and targets set by The European Commission but, for those working in the sector, the task ahead can feel incredibly vast.

For UK developers to achieve BNG goals, set to become law from the 12th February 2024, the importance of utilising artificial intelligence (AI) alongside skilled ecologists to deliver BNG at the scale and speed required, needs to be recognized. It is not about one replacing the other, but rather a collaborative endeavour aiming to enhance efficiency and accuracy. Some scepticism from ecologists toward AI tools is both understandable and crucial. This blog seeks to explain why AI and satellite technology is so important and how, specifically, it can work hand in hand with ecologists, complementing and enhancing the vital work they do, to help save biodiversity in Britain.

How AI & satellites solve the problems of traditional habitat mapping

The old methods of habitat mapping – namely, relying on ground-based ecological surveys – is a long and expensive task that faces several challenges. Many habitats are inaccessible on foot, and others are far too expansive, making ground mapping time consuming and expensive. Moreover, maintaining up-to-date and accurate maps using this method poses a continuous challenge, as habitats evolve and move over extended periods. Certain habitats, such as bogs or wetlands, are particularly vulnerable to climate change and may need rapid interventions if their condition deteriorates.

AI and satellite technology step in to alleviate these burdens. The ability to update maps more frequently, adapt to changing habitats, and reach inaccessible areas, positions AI as a valuable time-saving tool for ecologists, making their jobs more manageable. AI and satellites offer a comprehensive and efficient means of mapping habitats at scale, providing accurate and real-time insights. The utilization of precise, up-to-date habitat mapping not only facilitates the measurement of BNG but also identifies areas where biodiversity improvements can be made.

In addition to saving ecologists valuable time, AI also elevates accuracy without extending the time required for map production. Traditional approaches to habitat mapping often produce different results even when two seasoned ecologists survey the same location simultaneously, as individual judgment influences the outcome and baseline values for BNG. AI precisely delineates habitat boundaries and diminishes human errors such as gaps or overlapping shapes on GIS maps. AI’s standardised method eliminates the inherent biases and varied interpretations present in human on-the-ground mapping. The AI’s initial classification is subsequently refined by ecologists, producing a more consistent and insightful approach to habitat assessment.

The collaborative process between AI and ecologists

We have created this BNG AI platform to make the collaboration between ecologists, AI and satellite technology as seamless and effective as possible. The process begins with AI mapping a habitat, AiDash’s in-house ecologists then validate each map to ensure a high-standard of accuracy prior to being accessed on the platform. This practice underscores a crucial aspect of AI adoption – it enables human and machine collaborators to concentrate on their respective strengths within the task.

After AI completes the initial habitat map, developers can engage their own ecologists who, instead of laboriously mapping, can focus on applying their in-depth knowledge of a site and conducting focused ground validation with the assurance that they retain control over the final data outputs. This ‘human-in-the-loop’ approach and continuous interaction between ecologists and AiDash’s platform is key; AI serves to enhance efficiency and act as a supportive tool, not replace the essential professional judgment of ecologists.

The role of ecologists in moulding AI

The technology, while powerful, is still evolving and not without its limitations. As we venture into the adoption phase, it is vital to recognize that AI as a tool is continually developing and improving. The more AI models are used, the more they will learn and the more they will be adopted across the industry in the future. We cannot afford to fall behind on habitat mapping – the industry has recognised the importance of using every tool at our disposal.

These AI tools become even more important in the face of ecological workforce constraints. A DEFRA survey of 337 individuals working across 192 local planning authorities (LPAs) showed that more than 90% reported that their current expertise and ecological resources would be inadequate to deliver BNG. The collaboration between AI and ecologists is thus a strategic necessity. By employing technology to handle routine tasks, ecologists can dedicate more time to high-level analysis, decision-making, and strategic planning.

The essence of this collaborative approach lies in understanding the strengths and limitations of both AI and ecological expertise. While AI can swiftly process vast amounts of data and monitor changes at scale, ecologists bring a specialist and nuanced understanding of ecosystems, species interactions, and the ability to interpret complex ecological dynamics. The fusion of these strengths is set to become the way forward for measuring BNG.

A cultural shift – alleviating scepticism of AI

The journey toward adopting these technologies is not merely about technological integration but about fostering a cultural shift. Education and transparent communication about the collaborative nature of AI are paramount. As AI models improve, their use will not be restricted solely to habitat mapping. Developers and ecologists alike must begin to envision a future in which AI and satellite technology play vital roles in delivering more data that is then given to human experts to interpret. Familiarisation with this technology, and platforms such as AiDash’s BNG portal, will ensure ecologists and developers stay ahead of the curve.

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