Inside Singapore’s plan for climate change-resistant trees

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Ryan Lee, Group Director, and Abhishek Tandon, Deputy Director of IT at the National Parks Board.

Turn any corner in Singapore and you’re bound to see trees planted neatly along the road; creepers sprouting from buildings; or rooftops lined with gardens.

The nation plans to take its green vision further and plant one million more trees by 2030, to help it work towards net zero emission targets. That will double its urban tree population - bringing new logistical challenges amid the ever-present threat of climate change, says Ryan Lee, Group Director of Singapore’s National Parks Board (NParks).

Tech will be crucial to monitor Singapore’s growing tree population amid increasingly severe weather conditions, he adds. GovInsider caught up with his team to find out more.

Predict falling trees

NParks has created a model to determine how trees will behave under different wind conditions and estimate the risk of trees falling. Known as the Tree Structural Model+, it takes into account data such as wood strength and physical dimensions of trees.

The agency has also developed wireless chip sensors that monitor tree movement. Trees tilted at a greater angle, for instance, could be a sign of progressive weakening.

“A tree doesn’t fall in a day. There will be movement over a period of time before the trunk snaps,” Lee says. These tools provide officers with early warnings, and help them decide if a tree should be pruned or removed for safety, he adds.

Tech has also been useful to monitor indicators of tree health that are not visible to the human eye, Lee says. NParks has developed a tool that measures the specific wavelengths of light reflected from the leaves of a tree. A difference in wavelength reflects a change in leaf colour, a sign of tree health.

Developing these models is a “continuous process”, says Abhishek Tandon, Deputy Director of IT. With a trial and error approach, NParks hopes to “enhance the predictive capabilities of our model and better mitigate the impact of climate change”, he adds.

NParks has also created a remote tree management system that creates “digital twins” of trees, says Lee. Officers can have a panoramic view of trees through the system, allowing them to remotely assess a plot of trees.

That has enabled officers to remotely identify trees that require more in-depth inspections before heading down. Trees planted in hard-to-reach or dangerous areas, such as highways, can also be monitored safely.

This suite of technologies are being trialled at the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio park, Lee says, a “microcosm” of Singapore’s different green terrains. The pilot will last until the end of this year before NParks starts rolling out the tech progressively in other parks.

AI for wildlife and crowd monitoring

NParks is piloting a network of AI-equipped cameras to monitor animal populations, Lee says. The agency will use data from the cameras to map wildlife hotspots and implement interventions to prevent animals from entering urban areas. That will help reduce the rate of wildlife-vehicle collisions.

The agency has also used drones in selected parks and nature areas during Covid-19 to monitor visitor levels. AI-equipped CCTVs could detect people not wearing masks or if a particular area is overcrowded. That allowed safe distancing officers to be more efficiently deployed, and reduced the manpower needed.

Robot mowers

NParks has been trialling lawn mower robots across 16 parks. These are currently used for large flat lawns, Lee says, and the agency is working on using it for slopes and other terrains.

Grass height sensors have also been used in two parks to track the quality of grass cutting. That reduces the need for supervisors to physically inspect the area, he adds.

Lee hopes that NPark’s digitalisation push will attract more young people into the landscape sector. The use of innovative technologies like robots and AI will show that the jobs are not just about manual labour, he adds.

The sector now has many elderly workers, and tech will help to reduce the physical demands of the job, Lee says.

Singapore plans to plant one million more trees to help tackle the perennial threat of climate change. Tech will be crucial in monitoring its large tree population and creating an efficient workforce.