Environment patrol: These agile robots are keeping an eye on Italy’s forests

·2-min read

If you find yourself wandering the forests outside of Pisa, Italy, and come across a vivid red, four-legged, headless creature scurrying through the undergrowth, rest assured there is no need to be alarmed.

The creature is in fact a four-legged robot carrying out an important task - helping Pisa University researchers quantify and measure the conservation status of the region's forests.

Using its sensors and camera, the bot has been programmed to inspect plant life and ascertain whether it is healthy or not.

After two hours of walking and inspecting, it automatically returns to base for a battery swap.

"It can be pre-programmed, but of course it has a certain level of autonomy and it can decide for itself," said Manolo Garabini, professor at the University of Pisa and head of the Natural Intelligence project.

His colleague Franco Angelini says the robot has the added benefit of being able to move freely in the environment.

“It reproduces the human locomotion system, and in general the animal locomotion system, so he (the robot) is very agile and he is also able to walk over really irregular and rough terrain," he said.

All the data received by the natural intelligence project team is passed on to other departments and botanists to be carefully examined. It is then made available to colleagues all over Europe.

Multi-talented bot

But the robot’s conservation monitoring is not limited to flora. The device is also adept at monitoring possible damage caused by other species in an environment, particularly species that are non-native to a given habitat.

"For example wild boars can ruin the terrain, can ruin the ground and prevent the proper growth of new small plants, and this of course, in the long term, can definitely damage a given habitat," said Garabini.

Robots are used both on land and at sea, where access can be even trickier for human scientists.

"I would like to emphasise the monitoring of underwater marine habitats, using these robots which can dive to a depth of more that 1,000 metres in order to map out the seabed so much so that we are able to reconstruct the bed in a 3D model," said Maria Siclari, director-general of the Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) .

Once the robot has completed its task at San Rossore, near Pisa, it will head to the Italian Alps, a completely different environment, to record more important environmental data.

On Tuesday (July 26), ISPRA announced that land consumption in Italy had reached an average of two square metres per second - a 10-year high.

In total, Italy has lost 1,153 square kilometres of natural habitat between 2006 and 2021.

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

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