The Lazy ‘SlothBot’ Might Change Conservation Forever

If this detective SlothBot can help ecologists solve a mystery in the Ecuadorian rainforest, it could be a huge conservation victory.

Hanging under a dense canopy of trees, the sloth moves slowly. Deliberately slow. The animal crawls among the branches, wanders over a 30-meter-long steel cable, and looks like a lazy acrobat. But your goal is not to cast a spell or act; in fact, it is just the opposite. This sloth is all about stealing, watching, and collecting as much sunlight as possible.

After all, it is a solar robot.

At the Atlanta Botanical Garden, SlothBot is under the direct supervision of the researchers who built it. As you walk along the Canopy Walk in the garden, you can catch a glimpse of the robot’s big eyes and the 3D printed shell. It may not seem like it, but laziness works hard and collects important environmental data, such as temperature and carbon dioxide levels.

SlothBot acts as a private investigator. The slow and sloppy mobility helps the robot to avoid suspicion and needs that discreet look to accomplish its mission.

A MYSTERY IN THE FLOWER

Deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, a mystery blooms. Ecologists at the Siempre Verde Research Center, an 825-hectare nature reserve in the Andes, are interested in a rare species of orchid.

Currently, the Botanical Garden contains specimens of about 90% of the Stanhopea orchids in the world. Understanding their relationship with pollinators may be the key to preserving these flowering plants. Stanhopea orchids, also called pollinated eugloxin orchids, are found mainly at low altitudes and live in harmony with their pollinators of the same name, euglossine bees.

This is where SlothBot comes in

Exploring nature in the forest is not easy. Researchers need to place large nets on trees to access certain species, but these nets are expensive, difficult to deploy, and obstruct the surrounding natural habitat. People are also tall, loud, clumsy, disturbing. Meanwhile, a small robot can go undetected for a long time, collecting data that scientists may lose.

Egerstedt created SlothBot to help ecologists like Coffey study endangered plants and animal species, starting with orchids pollinated by orchids.

The robot will use a series of sensors to collect environmental data. It can help ecologists to verify this information with what they already know about high-altitude insects or provide new clues as to which tiny flies pollinate high mountain flowers. And there is hope that the SlothBot’s internal camera detects these bugs.

THE ART OF AMALGAMATION

Hopefully, SlothBot’s customization options will keep suspicion of other forest animals to a minimum. It probably doesn’t matter if the robot looks like a sloth or an armadillo, Egerstedt speculates, but it is important to use all approaches to minimize the “mess with the ecosystem”.

THE ORCHID SLEUTH

If everything goes according to plan, SlothBot will eventually build a house in Ecuador by 2022, says Coffey. She and Egerstedt are working on a price proposal to support the trip.

In Ecuador, SlothBot will have its own set of sensors and cameras to solve the mystery of which insects pollinate Stanhopea orchids. This valuable data will have to remain with the robot in the jungle for a short period of time. The SlothBot transmits the information over a local network to a terrestrial electronic device called a data logger, explains Egerstedt. Later, scientists could collect this data again.

If SlothBot succeeds in pursuing its mission of pursuing these elusive pollinators while remaining unknown, ecological conservation can undergo a robotic revolution, one slow step at a time.

“It could be a good merger of two fields,” said Coffey. “There is no reason why robotics cannot provide information about conservation and conservation cannot be improved by all existing technologies.”

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