Singapore to host international XPrize Rainforest competition in 2023

The competition aims to identify technologies that can be used to monitor rainforests and their biodiversity in real-time. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's forests may be small and fragmented, but next year, they will play an outsized role in helping humanity glean insights into how the remaining rainforests of the world can be conserved.

The Republic has been chosen to host the semi-finals of an international competition that aims to identify technologies - such as drones and artificial intelligence - that can be used to monitor rainforests and their rich treasure troves of biodiversity in real time.

The ability to monitor rainforests remotely will help humanity develop a better understanding of these iconic habitats, which are often difficult to study because rainforests are dense, vast and complex.

The venue for the semi-finals was announced by competition organiser XPrize, a non-profit organisation that designs public competitions to benefit humanity, during the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday evening (June 28) Singapore time.

XPrize Rainforest is a five-year competition that was launched in 2019 with a US$10 million prize (S$13.9 million) sponsored by Alana Foundation, an independent philanthropic organisation founded in the United States.

Other XPrize initiatives include the US$100 million carbon removal competition funded by electric carmaker Tesla's chief executive Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation, as well as a US$15 million pot that will go to the development of alternative proteins.

The winning team will develop novel technologies "to rapidly and comprehensively survey rainforest biodiversity and use that data to improve the understanding of this complex ecosystem", said XPrize on its website.

Founder and president of Alana Foundation Ana Lucia Villela said during Tuesday's event: "This prize will generate critical data and insight for preserving our rainforests, its culture and people, which are essential for stabilising our earth's climate."

About 15 teams are expected to take part in the semi-finals, including the Act Now Amazonas Action Alliance, which leverages an audio technology and artificial intelligence developed by start-up Rainforest Connection to "eavesdrop" on the forest.

XPrize said Singapore was selected because of its conservation efforts and its efforts at harnessing science to address biodiversity in an urban landscape.

For example, researchers at the National Parks Board (NParks) had used a suite of bird tracking technology to find that Singapore is located at the intersection of two major flyways, the superhighways in the air that migratory birds take every year to escape the winter chill in the Northern Hemisphere.

Previously, Singapore was thought to be a stopover for birds only along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, the world’s largest migratory route, spanning the Arctic Circle down south to Australia and New Zealand. 

But the study published in December 2020 showed that some birds which spend their winters in Singapore had journeyed here using the Central Asian Flyway across the Himalayas.

More recently, NParks had embarked on an effort called ecological profiling exercise to show how the various vegetated plots in Singapore connect with one another.

This connectivity is crucial in ensuring that wild animals do not become isolated in their own forest plots, but can make their way around the nation’s fragmented forest landscape to find food and mates in other green areas. Such a connectivity map can help guide development work so that this can be done more sensitively.

“The proximity of Singapore’s rainforests to the resources of the city will be a critical asset for teams at this still early stage of testing,” XPrize added.

“It’s vastly different from the typical field sites where autonomous technologies, like the ones being developed, will be most useful. But the teams that succeed at semifinals testing will move on to test their tech in a remote location, without those helpful and accessible resources, in 2024.”

There are three rainforest basins in the world - the Amazon, which is the largest at 6.7 million sq km, more than twice the size of India; the Congo basin and South-east Asia.

Such habitats are crucial for humanity on a number of fronts.

They play an important role in the climate system, because trees on the equator can take in planet-warming carbon dioxide through photosynthesis all year round.

Rainforests are also home to many human communities, as well as many different species of rare wildlife.

The panel of nine judges for XPrize Rainforest include Singaporean conservation scientist Koh Lian Pin, who heads the National University of Singapore's Centre for Nature-based Climate Solutions.

Among other judges are Dr Stuart Davies, director of the Forest Global Earth Observatory at the Smithsonian Institution, as well as primatologist Luisa Arnedo from the National Geographic Society.

For the final round of the competition in 2024, the winning team will have to survey the most biodiversity in a 100 ha tropical rainforest plot in 24 hours and use that data to produce the greatest number of new insights after 48 hours that will reveal the true potential of the standing forest.

Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said in a video address during the event that Singapore is honoured to host the semi-finals.

"As both a city and a country, we have always faced unique challenges in land planning," he added.

"The autonomous technologies that the XPrize teams are developing for rapid biodiversity assessments will be very helpful to enhancing our collective understanding of rainforest ecosystems, both in Singapore and around the world."

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