The Dream Fund’s £1.25m award invites 1,500 volunteers to help use space and AI technology to restore Surrey’s wildlife habitats

Thursday 19th May 2022

A Surrey-based project to boost biodiversity though AI and space technology has won £1.25m of funding, thanks to the players of People’s Postcode Lottery, and opens the door to hundreds of nature enthusiasts who want to get involved.

The three-year project ‘Space 4 Nature’ will see the University of Surrey and the Surrey Wildlife Trust working in partnership with Buglife and the Painshill Park Trust. The team will enlist the help of the public to inform their work in the newly emerging field of Earth Observation – combining satellite technology and artificial intelligence – to monitor and improve nature restoration work.

Sarah Jane Chimbwandira, CEO of Surrey Wildlife Trust, said:
Space 4 Nature will transform our ability to survey and assess land, allowing us to target conservation work so that it can have the biggest impact on biodiversity. During the project, we will create at least 30 hectares of habitat for pollinators. Coupling hi-tech solutions with boots on the ground will allow us to monitor the impact of this habitat creation on individual species and apply successful interventions for these species elsewhere in Surrey and beyond.

“The vision for this project is to connect Surrey’s nature by mapping and identifying the best areas of Surrey which can act as corridors to support a huge variety of species including bees, butterflies, birds and small mammals. Working with landowners, volunteers and community groups we aim to transform the plight of threatened species in Surrey.

The University of Surrey’s academics will use very high-resolution images from space satellites and drones and combine them with artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities to map diverse habitats in Surrey, but they need help to create data for the computer-based learning systems. Buglife and Surrey Wildlife Trust, winner of a Queen’s Award for volunteering, will soon recruit and train 1,500 volunteers in habitat, plant and insect identification. The data these members of the public identify will enable highly detailed monitoring of biodiversity potential at sites across Surrey and ensure the best decisions can be made to restore wildlife.

The sophisticated technology means the team can zoom in to less than 0.5m2 to identify habitats, spot where dangers and threats to wildlife species lie, and find solutions which help protect nature, for example, where to create wildlife corridors and ‘B-Lines,’ and how to protect natural habitats including those which experience high visitor numbers, as at Painshill Park.

Buglife’s B-Lines are a network of wildflower insect superhighways; a series of ‘insect pathways’ running through the UK countryside and towns. Linking existing wildlife areas together, creating a network, like a railway, that weaves across the British landscape; providing large areas of brand new habitat.  Benefiting pollinators and a host of other wildlife.

Andrew Whitehouse, Head of Operations at Buglife, said:
Thanks to the support of the People’s Postcode Lottery, Space 4 Nature will develop new technology to help us map wildflower-rich habitats which are so vital to our pollinating insects. We will also be able to better target future nature restoration projects along our B-Lines network – including over 30 hectares of wildflower grasslands delivered by this project in Surrey.  Space 4 Nature will give a big boost to Surrey’s wildlife, but the new technology will have much wider, national impact.

Richard Murphy, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey and academic lead on the Space 4 Nature project, added:
This project will be the first to involve expert ecologists and citizen scientists with the latest Earth Observation technology and artificial intelligence. It will fundamentally change the way we work in biodiversity and habitat management, providing the data so desperately needed to identify and monitor the best conservation approaches.

“It’s a new, powerful innovation for nature’s recovery which will not only make an immediate contribution to improving the environment in the Surrey countryside but will also harness powerful new technological capabilities that can give future generations a solution to systemic problems that affect the whole planet.

Launched in 2011, the Dream Fund gives charities a chance to deliver projects they have always dreamed of but never had the opportunity to bring to life. The fund has so far supported 40 ‘Dream’ projects, awarding £24 million to inspiring organisations across Britain.