The full extent of the impacts of human activities on Earth’s ecosystems and climate are yet to be understood. However, it is widely accepted that human activities are destabilizing ecosystems and Earth processes upon which we rely for physical, economic, and social security. This volatility means stronger storms, deeper droughts, more severe disease and insect infestations, and declining native plant and animal communities.
For nearly 25 years, David Hill, associate professor of geography and environmental studies at TRU, has been researching how we can use technology to make infrastructure “smart”—meaning, capable of sensing the environment and then reconfiguring itself to respond to the conditions around it. Smart infrastructure allows us to react more intelligently to our quickly changing environment and make timely management decisions that promote both ecosystem health and enhanced resource production value.
“The key to adaptive management is being able to really see the state of the environment, in high resolution, in all of the dimensions relevant to your management objectives, which is why my work currently focuses on environmental sensing,” says Hill.
Hill’s interest in environmental management began as an undergraduate student at Cornell University, where he studied environmental engineering. During this time, he was introduced to the unpredictability of environmental processes and to stochastic modelling—that is, modeling under conditions of uncertainty. He was particularly captivated by water, which led him to join the groundwater modeling research group at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an MSc student. There, he studied the impacts of industrial farming in the midwestern US on water quality in the Mississippi River, a piece of the puzzle to the toxic algal blooms affecting the Gulf of Mexico over 1,200 KM away from the corn and soybean farms of the Midwest. Unsatisfied with the quality of the inputs to the models he developed as an MSc student, he decided to stay on at Illinois as a PhD student and focus his research on improving measurement density in natural environments with large deployments of low-cost sensors.
After receiving his PhD, Hill was recruited by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) in the United States, where he expanded his research by developing methods to integrate measurements from different kinds of sensors with complementary strengths. This work was ultimately leveraged in developing a real-time decision management system for flash flooding in urban environments.
Following his time at NCSA, Hill took at faculty post at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey where the heavily urbanized environment requires efficient storm management, but private land ownership has hampered the deployment of new environmental sensors.
“The iPhone had only been on the market for two years, but it was clear that it was going to be a game changer. In its tiny case, the iPhone holds more ability to gather and process information about the world around it than the first capsule that put humans on the moon. We were entering an era where we were going to have sensors nearly everywhere, at nearly all times.”
These ideas caused Hill to begin wondering how to opportunistically gather environmental measurements from these ubiquitous devices and integrate them into a characterization of the environment they were deployed in, a concept he calls “ubiquitous sensing”.
With orbiting satellites, abundant security camera footage, videos posted on social media platforms, smart devices measuring ambient conditions, integrated sensing systems in new cars and trucks, aircraft-based remote sensing, existing spatial data, and more, there is plenty of information that can potentially be used to build a comprehensive picture of our changing planet. Once ethically gathered and merged, these data have immense potential to support adaptive environmental management.
In a move that also met a family objective, Hill brought his research program to TRU in 2012, where he continued to advance his study of ubiquitous sensing with support from a Natural Science and Engineering Research Council Discovery grant. Once located in the rangelands of the interior of British Columbia instead of the metropolitan centre of New Jersey, Hill began to explore how his work on ubiquitous sensing could be applied to the ranching and forestry sectors.
At TRU Hill also encountered another technology that was disrupting traditional environmental sensing—remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS), more commonly known as drones.
Satellite technology is very expensive and has technical limitations that impact our ability to collect high-resolution images at precise moments in time. Conventional aircraft-borne remote sensing has been used to acquire more customized data that covers specific areas at specific times; for example, tree canopy height following a wildfire. But aircraft-based remote sensing is expensive, which poses a significant barrier.
As an alternative, Hill explains that, “RPASs enable on-demand remote sensing at very high spatial resolution, and they are much more affordable to run. RPAS-based remote sensing presents a transformative technology. These little machines can really bridge the gap between terrestrial point measurements and satellite-based remote sensing.”
However, unlike satellite-acquired data or point measurements acquired by scientific grade equipment, RPAS-acquired measurements are often of significantly lower accuracy. Hill is exploring how these three types of data can be optimally combined to create a wall-to-wall characterization of the conditions in the field, thus informing adaptive management of range and forested environments, which is where his GeoX Lab comes in.
“The GeoX Lab is where we move the research forward,” explains Hill. With financial support from the federal and provincial governments, private industry, and non-governmental organizations, Hill supervises undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research assistants who deploy sensors, collect and analyze data, develop software, and create sensing hardware as part of their student training.
Recently the GeoX Lab has been exploring how images captured via RPAS can support scientists in eradicating invasive weeds in grasslands and wetlands by identifying where they are concentrated on the landscape. They team has also been working to support forest inventory analysis by identifying new outbreaks of fir beetle infestations, and to aid precision forestry by identifying cutting strategies that maximize profit while maintaining forest stand and aesthetic criteria.
“Although the RPAS work has become the majority of my current projects,” says Hill, “I also have projects in other domains, such as wildlife biology and hydrology. Basically, I am interested in any problem in which geographical data from several different sensor sources must be combined to support environmental management that is adaptive to changing conditions. As computing technology gets smaller and cheaper, batteries become more powerful and longer lasting, and new consumer technology is brought to market, the outcomes of our lab’s research could provide the tools to leverage data collected by these devices and generate the information needed to support decision making in a changing world.”
Hill, who speaks highly of both his department and the opportunities granted for researchers at TRU, has benefited from the latitude for creativity at the University where he both teaches and learns. “What we do as researchers is creative,” he says. “My work has changed significantly as I have grown in my learning; TRU accommodates that change, doesn’t stifle originality, and encourages a respect amongst colleagues that allows for the support of research innovation through unexpected developments.”
One of those unexpected developments in creative research has led to one of Hill’s current projects: using RPAS-acquired data to identify the best areas for strategic cattle grazing. The driving question behind this research, funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) and British Columbia Knowledge Development Fund (BCKDF) is, “Can we use these tools to monitor grasslands in order to maximize their use while minimizing environmental damage?” It is expected that this new method of selecting where to graze cattle will increase animal production efficiency while reducing environmental harm. Additionally, this system of rotational grazing may also reduce invasive species and improve soil-carbon sequestration.
“The question in range management,” Hill explains, “is often ‘How do we not destroy the resources we have, while also using those resources to their fullest extent?’ This research helps to answer that question.”
If given the opportunity to conduct his ideal project, Hill says that he would like to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team to explore integrated management of a human-impacted ecosystem holistically. A complex problem like this would involve consideration of economic, ecological, and social factors. “For example,” Hill offers, “think about a ranching lease. There are economic factors like animal production and trading on the carbon market, ecological factors like biodiversity of plants and animals, and social factors like fire risk and aesthetics of the landscape. Smaller-scale studies have suggested the benefits of considering ecosystems like this in a holistic way for integrated management, but it’s very difficult to operationalize this at a large scale. Moving toward making it possible at a large scale would be a research dream fulfilled in my world.”
Given that environmental behaviours are unpredictable and we face risks to the planet that have never been seen before, Hill hopes that his work in researching adaptive environmental management will support human welfare and ecosystem health in the face of a changing climate.
“Previously, people didn’t realize the scope of what we were doing to the earth while it was happening. We made the fundamental assumption that the future would look like the past; that was a bad assumption. Different communities of thought figured this out at different times, but now that we all know the problem, we have the opportunity to raise awareness through knowledge. We need to find new tools and methods. Hopefully, this research is my contribution to the new solutions that will ultimately preserve the Earth for the future of humankind and the species we share it with.”