How visual data is propelling a new wave of climate tech

By | March 6, 2022

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This article was contributed by Evan Nisselson, general partner at LDV Capital

Until recently, there was no visceral sense that the largest challenge we face is fixing the planet. Responding to environmental problems was for too long viewed by big companies as a marketing strategy to target consumers who were more environmentally conscious than others. Today, the tides are, literally, changing, and sustainability is now mission critical for businesses as new wisdom has emerged that illustrates how being ‘green’ is a catalyst for innovation and market opportunity.

Climate tech companies can now leverage advances in visual data collection, computer vision and AI to bolster their bottom line by focusing on enhancing sustainable practices. Earth observation and analysis now go beyond risk indexing, and can actually measure and mitigate water, fire and land use risk. Molecular imaging and computational design are making fabrics, food and packaging more sustainable, and autonomous robotics is paving the way forward for precision agriculture, supply chains and manufacturing.

The climate tech hype curve. ©LDV, 2022

Real-time Earth climate observation and analytics

The field of real-time Earth observation and analytics has progressed significantly in the past few years to incorporate remote sensing opportunities that extend beyond traditional space-agency-based platforms and their offerings. According to Euroconsult, a leading global strategy consulting and market intelligence firm specialized in the space sector and satellite enabled verticals, the Earth observation data and service market is projected to reach $7.5 billion by 2030. Sensors have been miniaturized, and energy requirements reduced, resulting in nascent start-up companies today operating more satellites in orbit than any space agency at a minimal cost relative to conventional satellite missions. As climate crises increase in severity, satellite Earth observation technologies combined with historical data can generate risk measurement and mitigation strategies for future catastrophes relating to wildfires, floods and droughts.

For instance, advances in new space-borne measurements have propagated the development of tracking floods or monitoring precipitation from real-time high-definition video. Small unmanned drones closer to the surface are capable of mapping snow depths or estimating measurements, providing new process insights into hydrological conditions across geographies. In addition, land cover and land use globally can threaten sustainability. Analyzing a global, fine spatial resolution time-series dataset of land cover is advantageous since the location and timing of land use changes on Earth can be identified. This can be applied to stabilizing forest losses or managing the carbon cycle.

Real-time Earth observation. ©LDV, 2022

Leveraging real-time Earth observation and analytics with artificial intelligence and machine learning can model economic impact and hazard functions of climate events and derive vulnerabilities. Insights into the location, severity and timing of physical and transition risks contribute towards quantifying risk assessment scores so financial institutions and enterprises can develop mitigation strategies in advance.

Moreover, “monitoring ecosystems and natural assets via satellite images and interpreting other information from remote-sensing sources can be critical for companies, NGOs and patch to monitor and address a broad range of sustainability concerns like water pollution, water scarcity or access in the context of watershed and water resource management,” says Dimple Roy, Director of Water Management for the International Institute for Sustainable Development. “Imagery and remote sensing will be critical to getting in front of major water risks like flood, drought and everything in between.” Ultimately, the new techniques afforded by advances in remote sensing platforms presents us with the opportunity to better manage and mitigate risk across severe climate events.

Molecular imaging and computational design

Advances in molecular imaging, advanced light-based technologies and computational design are vastly expanding how and what we can create, making food and materials more cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. Continued progress in spectroscopy and nanophotonics is pushing us towards super-resolution lenses and microscopes capable of providing insight into a wide variety of biological and chemical processes and structures.

Global metamaterials market graph. ©LDV, 2022

These findings will inspire and inform the creation of advanced geometries and materials, like metamaterials, that are enabling higher-performing computers that produce more power, while taking up less space and using less energy. Light and laser direct deposition, photopolymer waveguide, and light-based scanning for ultra-accurate metrology will all be necessary for the consistent additive manufacturing of prototypes that leverage advanced material properties. These prototypes will be faster and cheaper to iterate and could lead to the development of higher-performing parts, such as ultra-efficient turbines that are manufactured more cost-effectively and with lower environmental impact.

Cellular agriculture like lab-grown meats leverages molecular images. New proteins that can coat and extend the freshness of food are being discovered via computational design. More nutritious and less resource-heavy produce is being grown thanks to genotyping and phenotyping of plants and seeds. “Analyzing and visualizing on a molecular level the 3D structures and the movements of proteins enables the redesign of proteins that fit the mass food market as to sustainability, health, taste, stability and cost,” says Ilan Samish of Amai Proteins and author of Computational Protein Design.

These advancements are not only being championed by food and agriculture but are also generating the beginning of massive recycled opportunities in biodegradable and textiles and packaging that will have a tremendous impact on the ecological impact of the fashion and supply chain.

Autonomous robotics enable precision across many sectors

Autonomous robots require different varieties of cameras, lidar, radar, and real-time perception to see and navigate through the world around them. The connection between autonomous vehicles that are predominantly electrical, with smaller carbon footprints, is well documented. However, the positive environmental impact of autonomous robotics goes well beyond self-driving cars. Vision-enabled robots will enable a plethora of tasks to be completed more efficiently, precisely and environmentally friendly.

agriculture and management. ©LDV, 2022

In agriculture, autonomous robotics and equipment-mounted sensors are enabling real-time plant-level management, reducing environmentally harmful inputs like pesticides and fertilizers and improving yield. Cameras and edge computing enable new weeding systems, for example, to make plant-level decisions in real-time, reducing herbicide use by up to 90%. Robotic field aids will augment farm labor shortages that result in significant food waste.

Autonomous robots and drones will collect data on weather conditions, biodiversity changes, and more in outdoor settings to do things like advise better trade routes for maritime vessels and trucks to ensure the least amount of impact on other species. Indoors, they will improve efficiencies in manufacturing processes and limit waste and fuel usage.

Global warehouses with robots by year. ©LDV, 2022

By 2025, 4 million vision-enabled robots will be deployed in 50,000 warehouses to help automate tasks in warehouses and distribution centers. They will enable more goods to be stored in smaller facilities, even some “dark warehouses” that will decrease energy consumption and land use. Additionally, robots armed with cameras, 3mm wave sensors and more will play a central role in solving the mounting challenges posed by returns and reverse logistics, which is a major contributor to global waste and projected to be a $603.9 billion market by 2025.

The future of climate technology

The market appetite for climate tech is significantly growing and advances in visual sensing, computer vision and AI are triggering a massive new wave of exciting climate tech companies powered by visual data. More and more companies are incorporating environmental and social governance in their business operations, resulting in improved sustainability scores directly correlated with an improvement in financial and operational performance, as well as a lower cost of capital. With climate change presenting an existential threat to humanity, this generation will behold a new crop of innovation to address mission-critical issues.

Evan Nisselson is general partner at LDV Capital

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