AI could monitor farms from space to look for illegal pollution

It seems as though the thousands of voices protesting the awful, human contribution to climate change have finally been answered. To an extent.

The US government has been making use of the country’s recent developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to detect farms that may be illegally polluting the waterways. This approach has also been trialled across Europe to monitor and inspect farmland.

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the US comprise around 40 per cent of the country’s livestock and these intensive farms often contain as many as 2500 pigs or 125,000 chickens per facility, generating around 335 million tonnes of waste per year. Not only do the farms produce pollution via the (bovine) livestock but the vast amount of waste usually goes untreated before it makes its way into the waterways.

Despite the US’ Clean Water Act stating that those who dump waste into a waterway require a federal permit, it is estimated that nearly 60 per cent of CAFOs do not have one. Not only does that make this sort of dumping illegal, but it also greatly harms the environment and all the species that live in it.

Of course, the US realised that this was a problem and nominated a team of experts to scan and track which farms were illegally dumping waste into waterways, using satellite imagery. However, two members of this team, Daniel Ho and Cassandra Handan-Nader of Stanford University, were able to train a neural network to scan publicly available satellite images for CAFOs and identify certain shapes such as rectangular barns or outdoor manure pits.

Amazingly, while a human would take six weeks to identify the farms around the country, the AI machine took just two days and found 15 per cent more farms. Ho believes that these computer algorithms are the first step towards cleansing the world of waste-stained waterways.

Similarly to the US, computer algorithms are monitoring the health of vineyards in Tuscany, Italy, and observing whether farmers which received governments subsidies in Lithuania and Estonia are maintaining the good condition of their lands, reducing the need for physical visits from inspectors.

It is estimated that using these algorithms may save around €500,000 every year in manual inspection costs and false payments made to non- compliant farmers.

Money like this can be used to further the environmental protection cause and make this world a safer place for all life. Technology like this, to cite Ho, would not only save money and time for governments to focus on more immediate and serious problems, but also any future life residing on this planet.

 

Illustration: Holly Hollis

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