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These Drones Can Plant 100,000 Trees in One Day

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Billions of trees are felled each year, according to the Rainforest Action Network, and planting a tree requires more time and effort than cutting one down. That makes keeping up with deforestation rates challenging for conservationists. The minds behind one tech startup think they can speed up global tree-planting efforts by taking the burden off humans and placing it on drones.

BioCarbon Engineering has assembled a fleet of drones that can plant thousands of trees a day, as Fast Company reports. The company will soon focus its efforts on Myanmar’s Irrawaddy River delta, an area that’s seen rapid loss of its mangrove trees due to aquaculture, agriculture, and logging. Estimates place the amount of regional mangroves destroyed in the past 30 years between 75 and 83 percent. Starting in September, BioCarbon will partner with Worldview International Foundation to aid restoration efforts started by human hands.

Spreading seeds from aircraft (like helicopters) is not a new strategy. These methods are valued for their speed, but chances of tree survival are hurt in the process. To come up with an efficient way of planting that doesn’t damage seeds, BioCarbon had to get innovative.

After the company maps a plot of land from above and analyzes the best spots for planting, their drones fly low to the ground and fire nutrient-packed seed pods into the soil. This way, more seeds end up in places where they’ll thrive rather than on rocks or in streams where they’ll go to waste.

With one human pilot for every six drones, the company is able to get 100,000 pods in the ground a day. Even in places with regulations restricting pilots to one drone at a time, the vehicles are 10 times faster and half as expensive as human labor. Worldview International Foundation, which has worked with the Irrawaddy delta community to plant 750 hectares of trees so far, hopes to expand that area by 250 hectares with help from BioCarbon Engineering. The team also plans to continue employing locals to assemble seed pods and cultivate saplings.

To get a closer look at their planting process, check out the video below.

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[h/t Fast Company]

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Google's AI Can Make Its Own AI Now
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Artificial intelligence is advanced enough to do some pretty complicated things: read lips, mimic sounds, analyze photographs of food, and even design beer. Unfortunately, even people who have plenty of coding knowledge might not know how to create the kind of algorithm that can perform these tasks. Google wants to bring the ability to harness artificial intelligence to more people, though, and according to WIRED, it's doing that by teaching machine-learning software to make more machine-learning software.

The project is called AutoML, and it's designed to come up with better machine-learning software than humans can. As algorithms become more important in scientific research, healthcare, and other fields outside the direct scope of robotics and math, the number of people who could benefit from using AI has outstripped the number of people who actually know how to set up a useful machine-learning program. Though computers can do a lot, according to Google, human experts are still needed to do things like preprocess the data, set parameters, and analyze the results. These are tasks that even developers may not have experience in.

The idea behind AutoML is that people who aren't hyper-specialists in the machine-learning field will be able to use AutoML to create their own machine-learning algorithms, without having to do as much legwork. It can also limit the amount of menial labor developers have to do, since the software can do the work of training the resulting neural networks, which often involves a lot of trial and error, as WIRED writes.

Aside from giving robots the ability to turn around and make new robots—somewhere, a novelist is plotting out a dystopian sci-fi story around that idea—it could make machine learning more accessible for people who don't work at Google, too. Companies and academic researchers are already trying to deploy AI to calculate calories based on food photos, find the best way to teach kids, and identify health risks in medical patients. Making it easier to create sophisticated machine-learning programs could lead to even more uses.

[h/t WIRED]

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These LED Crosswalks Adapt to Whoever Is Crossing
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Courtesy Umbrellium

Crosswalks are an often-neglected part of urban design; they’re usually just white stripes on dark asphalt. But recently, they’re getting more exciting—and safer—makeovers. In the Netherlands, there is a glow-in-the-dark crosswalk. In western India, there is a 3D crosswalk. And now, in London, there’s an interactive LED crosswalk that changes its configuration based on the situation, as Fast Company reports.

Created by the London-based design studio Umbrellium, the Starling Crossing (short for the much more tongue-twisting STigmergic Adaptive Responsive LearnING Crossing) changes its layout, size, configuration, and other design factors based on who’s waiting to cross and where they’re going.

“The Starling Crossing is a pedestrian crossing, built on today’s technology, that puts people first, enabling them to cross safely the way they want to cross, rather than one that tells them they can only cross in one place or a fixed way,” the company writes. That means that the system—which relies on cameras and artificial intelligence to monitor both pedestrian and vehicle traffic—adapts based on road conditions and where it thinks a pedestrian is going to go.

Starling Crossing - overview from Umbrellium on Vimeo.

If a bike is coming down the street, for example, it will project a place for the cyclist to wait for the light in the crosswalk. If the person is veering left like they’re going to cross diagonally, it will move the light-up crosswalk that way. During rush hour, when there are more pedestrians trying to get across the street, it will widen to accommodate them. It can also detect wet or dark conditions, making the crosswalk path wider to give pedestrians more of a buffer zone. Though the neural network can calculate people’s trajectories and velocity, it can also trigger a pattern of warning lights to alert people that they’re about to walk right into an oncoming bike or other unexpected hazard.

All this is to say that the system adapts to the reality of the road and traffic patterns, rather than forcing pedestrians to stay within the confines of a crosswalk system that was designed for car traffic.

The prototype is currently installed on a TV studio set in London, not a real road, and it still has plenty of safety testing to go through before it will appear on a road near you. But hopefully this is the kind of road infrastructure we’ll soon be able to see out in the real world.

[h/t Fast Company]

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