The first three Industrial Revolutions that brought water and steam, electricity and automation technology respectively have brought great harm to the environment, but the Fourth Industrial Revolution could change things. 5G, which is at the helm of this technological revolution, is enabling new methods of preserving and protecting the environment.

In the bid for sustainability, organisations around the world have developed 5G-powered live broadcasts and AI to clamp down on illegal activity, monitor water pollution levels and animal health, as well as encourage more environmentally-friendly practices. Faster connections, higher bandwidth and greater coverage will mean that larger amounts of data can be transmitted quicker across forests and seas.

Here is how 5G is being used to protect rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and wildlife.

Costa Rican rainforest

Early this year, Rainforest Connection (RFCx) announced that they were working with Huawei to use AI and 5G to conserve the Costa Rican rainforest. “This rainforest has one of the richest biodiversities in the world, but is threatened frequently by illegal logging and poachers,” shared Andrew Williamson, Huawei’s Vice President of Market Insights, Public Affairs and Communications Department at the company’s Asia Pacific Innovation Day in Chengdu last week.

As part of its sustainability initiative, Huawei introduced AI sound recorders, endearingly termed “guardians”, that are able to recognise the noises of chainsaws, trucks and other machinery. Rangers can pinpoint the location of suspicious activity and respond in real-time to investigate illegal poaching or logging. These “guardians” can also identify the stress calls of different kinds of animals in the rainforest, allowing rangers to monitor endangered species.

The challenge in creating such a system lay in transmitting sound data in an environment with high humidity, relatively high temperatures and no fixed power supply. The sound identification system also needed to be highly specific and intelligent, since there were so many different sounds within a rainforest. RFCx used Huawei’s cloud and AI services to manage the large amounts of data, so rangers would be alerted to problematic areas quickly and accurately.

Great Barrier Reef

Professor Xiang Wei, Foundation Professor and Head of Discipline of IoT Engineering at James Cook University (JCU) is heading a project that uses AI to preserve the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The Reef and the vast ecosystem it supports are under great stress due to climate change and poor water quality. Chemical fertilisers used in nearby farms often get washed into the Reef, turning its pristine waters into a muddy brown colour. The marine life is also incredibly sensitive to the nitrates found in the fertilisers. JCU is using a cloud-based rain gauge to predict rainfall so farmers can avoid fertilising their crops right before a spell of rain.

The university is also using 5G to build a Smart Ocean. This is challenging because reliable monitoring infrastructure is expensive and not as developed in oceans as it is on land, noted Professor Xiang. Which is why JCU is collaborating with Myriota, an IoT satellite company, to build an on-water satellite that uses 5G chipsets to send data to a cloud service. It will be able to monitor water quality using microsensors and AI, and give real-time information and feedback to farmers. The satellite can be used anywhere in the ocean – there will be no need to build communication towers to send signals from the ocean. This would significantly reduce the cost of monitoring the Reef.

Additionally, JCU is working with the Cairns Regional Council to build Australia’s first Urban Great Barrier Reef Monitoring System, which will keep track of the amount of nutrients, sediments and contaminants in the waters around the Reef. Anyone would be able to access the data online and see for themselves the impact human activities have on the Reef.

In 2017, the university opened Australia’s first Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) research facility in collaboration with Huawei. The research facility was to encourage students to apply IoT technology to solve real-world problems.

Wildlife conservation

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The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is pushing out several initiatives to protect animals with the support of 5G technology. Geolocation technology is being used to monitor the movements of animals within their natural habitat, and AI is now able to identify an animal from a visual image.

Its most important initiative, according to Dr Aditya Gangadharan, who runs an elephant conservation programme at IUCN, is to develop an ethical and security framework on conservation data. Locations and movement patterns of endangered wildlife are very valuable for conservation, and extremely dangerous in the hands of poachers.Thus, data security is a huge priority for the IUCN.

Protecting the pandas

VR company Chuangwei is developing a virtual reality monitoring system for researchers at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (pictured above), with the help of Huawei’s 5G networks that have been set up throughout the base. 5G allows researchers to monitor the pandas’ conditions more quickly and accurately through high quality 8K live broadcasts. This is critical to conservation efforts as pandas get stressed from the presence of humans and in-person monitoring cannot be conducted too frequently.

The Research Base is also training AI algorithms to recognise panda mating calls and play it back to encourage breeding. Pandas are an endangered species, and it doesn’t help that their mating season is only a narrow window of two to three months each year. Researchers are constantly exploring ways to encourage pandas to mate, and using 5G-powered AI may be the latest answer to saving this endangered animal.

Using technology to reduce the harm done to our environment is important, believes JCU’s Professor Xiang. “We’ve been using very powerful AI and technology, we’ve provided very powerful predictive engines, but so what? Eventually it comes down to the impact of human practice on our environment,” he said. “We have to do something useful to reduce our human impact.” 5G has opened up a world of possibilities in saving our environment; but rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef and wildlife are only the beginning.