Augmented nature


In collaboration with Mick Geerits, Duncan Carter and Arthur Gouillart. Illustrations by Mathilde Heu. The project was developed in close collaboration with the Morphological Computation Lab at Imperial College London.

The 6th Mass Extinction

The rate of extinction is 1000 times higher than it used to be before humans. One species goes extinct every 5 minutes. Over the past 30 years 75% of all insects went extinct. 95% of all large predatory fish that roamed the seas are now gone.

Augmented Nature is a set of speculative robotic tools that help animals adapt to the mass extinction. The tools enhance the capacities of so-called Ecosystem Engineer species to reclaim and change their own habitats. The project proposes an active and animal-centered alternative to the current conservation efforts. Nature is a dynamic system and evolution is as much driven by species adapting to change as it is by species transforming their environment. By actively enhancing these types of capabilities in the endangered ecosystem engineers we aim to provide an answer to the sharp decline in biodiversity. The approach is explained through two case studies.

Humpback Whale Case study

The first case study is on the Humpback whale, which is an ecosystem engineer due to the whale pump mechanism. Whales carry nutrients, such as nitrogen, from the depths where they feed, back to the surface via their feces. This transfer allows for more phytoplankton to grow at the surface, which is the basis of the entire food web. However, whales are at risk due to climate change, ship collisions and ocean acidification. Additionally, ship engines and sound explosions interfere with their vocalisations and disorient them.

Whale biotag

Current advances in biologging technology have enabled scientists to passively gather ocean data and shed more light on whale behaviours. Our proposed tag attaches to the whale but does more than just measuring data on noise, depth and position. With its integrated underwater speaker the tag can actively communicate with the whale and use sound to inform them about the positions of nearby ships.

The proposed biotag is attached to the whale, just like current data-logging tags, but it does more than just measuring data on noise, depth and position. With its integrated underwater speaker, the tag can actively communicate with the whale through sound. The biologging tag contains a hydrophone to pick up ocean sounds, an underwater speaker, a GPS receiver and can be charged wirelessly. It can inform the whale on positions of nearby ships and prompt the whale to avoid them in both the short and long term. By strategically placing nutrients, it can create new habitats outside shipping routes.

How may it work?

Humpbacks are fishing under dangerous and noisy shipping lanes.

Sound from the tags nudges the whales away from ships.

Whales can now strategically transfer nutrients and create new habitats.

Peccary Case study

Peccaries (Tayassuidae Suina) are a type of pigs that live in the Amazon rainforest. They are critical to the Amazonian ecosystem as they disperse seeds and form habitats for hundreds of amphibians by rolling in the mud. However, they are at risk of extinction due to deforestation, habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Peccary biotag

The newly developed biotag supports the ecosystem engineering capacities of the peccaries and enables them to rebuild their habitats. The biologging device contains vibration motors, a GPS receiver and a camera module and uses state of the art computer vision algorithms to understand the environment. It uses vibrations to convey information about the forest and guides peccaries towards deforested areas where they can disperse seeds and reforest the lost habitat. The tag also has the capacity to locate valuable new resources in the forest, i.e fruit, herbs that are useful to the local communities and can provide new income sources as an alternative to logging.

How may it work?

Peccaries are at risk due to habitat loss in deforested areas.

Using vibration the bio-tag guides the peccaries to areas where they can disperse seeds and dig wallows.

Peccaries now dig wallows and create new habitats, reforesting the rainforest.