Viewing Posts by Richard Maltzman
Cloud Ag visualization showing variable soil carbon levels across a single field. Image credit: Cloud AgCloud
This is the second in a series on Smart Farming; this one focusing on things way above the Earth and well, the earth of the Earth. This is a post about how technology projects can be applied to increasingly important sustainability issues of all sorts, including, literally the soil under our feet. It’s also a post about collaboration, combining different disciplines, and listening to stakeholders, all important principles of the 7th Edition PMBOK® Guide.
I open with a quote from the article from UMass Magazine.
A few years ago, (UMass) geosciences Assistant Professor Isaac Larsen was driving along in the Midwest, near where he grew up. “The hilltops in the landscape no longer had organic rich soil—just subsoil. I could tell by the color,” he recalls. A big driver of soil erosion and degradation is the plow. “Every time a plow goes across the landscape, it fluffs up the soil,” Larsen explains, "and the soil moves down the slope.” Over the course of a century and a half, that’s a lot of soil.
What to do? Supported by NASA, Larsen and his team are utilizing satellite imagery to analyze the problem. “We can relate soil color that we see in satellite imagery to the amount of carbon in the soil, and then relate that amount of carbon to a soil horizon,”—or soil layer—explains Evan Thaler, a doctoral student working with Larsen. The team has been able to show that around a third of all cultivated land in the United States has lost its rich topsoil. “The next step,” says Thaler, “is for policy makers to incorporate this information. If we can rebuild the carbon in the hilltops, we’re actually pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and putting it back in the soil, so it’s absolutely a climate change issue as well.” Larsen backs that up. “We have to mitigate the effect we’ve had,” he says. “Restoration of carbon to soils is one piece of the solution.”
So, this project was about applying satellite technology and business intelligence (BI) to collate and advance data into information, into knowledge, providing wisdom – a key theme for project managers. If you are not familiar with the DIKW pyramid, today is the day you should investigate it. You can start with this excellent article (Click here to read an outstanding article on the topic).
I found this theme reiterated in several diverse sources. In this article from NPR, Evan Thaler is quoted again:
The soil that's darkest in color is widely known as topsoil. Soil scientists call this layer the "A-horizon." It's the "black, organic, rich soil that's really good for growing crops," says Evan Thaler, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
It's full of living microorganisms and decaying plant roots, also called organic carbon. When settlers first arrived in the Midwest, it was everywhere, created from centuries of accumulated prairie grass. Plowing, though, released much of the trapped carbon, and topsoil was also lost to wind and water erosion. The soil that remains is often much lighter in color.
It's clear that this is important, but even more so when you note the connection to climate change, this gets even more interesting. I found this article in a site dedicated to applying Artificial Intelligence to practical matters – in this case, soil carbon monitoring, the very topic of this Smart Farming post.
In short, it describes how soil systems (healthy ones, that is!) act as a carbon “sink” by sequestering atmospheric CO2, thus reducing greenhouse gas concentrations. Healthy soil, says the article, is capable of storing twice the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and three times that in above-ground vegetation. The article answers the question: “why initiate projects to carefully measure soil carbon?
Why should we monitor soil carbon:
Ironically, this post about the Earth’s soil provides some help for project managers who want to ‘build from the ground up’ in terms of advancing data into information, knowledge, and wisdom.
For more digging (pun intended):
“Soil organic carbon and carbon sequestration in Western Australia”
“Extent of Soil Loss Across the US Corn Belt”
“Quantifying carbon for agricultural soil management: from the current status toward a global soil information system”
Davis, et al , “Review of Soil Organic Carbon Measurement Protocols: A U.S. and Brazil Comparison and Recommendation”
OK folks, time to add a new word to your vocabulary: Agrivoltaics.
This refers to the practice of installing solar photovoltaic panels on farmland in a way that primary agricultural activities (such as animal grazing, insect resourcing (honey production) and crop/vegetable production) can continue. It’s also called dual-use solar.
A recent article in UMass Magazine features several stories in one article; this post focuses on the first story, regarding (you guessed it) Agrivoltaics. A portion of the article reads:
Dwayne Breger ’94PhD, director of the UMass Clean Energy Extension, says, “With dual-use solar, you do simultaneous solar collection and farming on the same land, together.” In theory, placing solar panels higher off the ground and spacing them farther apart allows the sun to hit both the panels and the plants sufficiently. In the mid-2000s, UMass installed one of the first dual-use arrays in an experimental farm in South Deerfield to test the theory.
Now, Breger’s team is working with three solar developers on eight different farms. “These site trials will greatly expand the data,” Breger says. “You’ll see active agriculture taking place under the array. It could be row crops or a field of hay or sheep grazing,” Breger says. “Raising the panels helps distribute the shading, and also allows farm machinery to get under and around them.” Fine-tuning dual-use farming can provide farmers with another revenue stream and more solar power for the rest of us. “We’re rooting for clean energy, and we’re rooting for farming and food.”
This short article inspired me to dig deeper and it led to a whole series of interesting findings.
An opportunity becomes a threat, becomes an opportunity again
One of the findings is related to project risk. We all know that when we respond to a threat, there is a chance of secondary risk – that is, new threats (or perhaps even new opportunities) arising because of the threat response. An example is an injury incurred from an air bag deployment. The air bag is a threat response to injuries from impacts in auto accidents, and if the airbag itself causes injury – that’s a secondary threat.
In the case of solar farms, they are a response to the threat of climate change (and an opportunity to make money as a power-generation mechanism). However, when they are installed, vast amounts of farmland could become unavailable – thus, a secondary risk of the solar farm deployment.
In fact, farm and ranch lands are often the ‘victim’ of urban and highly developed land use, some of which is solar farm use. From the farmlandinfo website:
“between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farmland and ranchland were converted to urban and highly developed land use (4.1 million acres) or low-density residential land use (nearly 7 million acres).”
The reports on the site also show how states have—or have not—responded to the threats of agricultural land conversion.
This is a good source of information on the topic if it has piqued your interest. You can visit:
An example of the loss of agricultural land is shown below. Interactive maps of every US state are available here. This one is from northeastern Massachusetts. Red dots indicate loss of agricultural land
Continuing to dig into this after being inspired, I found a quite resource-rich US Department of Energy site covering (ironically) its aptly-named INSpire project.
New research demonstrates that states and regions can more than meet their ambitious solar energy goals on marginal and developed land without sacrificing its productive farmland and sensitive wildlife habitat. Examples of interesting projects described in Inspire include:
I recommend visiting the US Department of Energy Inspire site: https://openei.org/wiki/InSPIRE/Project
You will find there:
Overall (inspirational) source: https://www.umass.edu/magazine/fall-2021/smartfarm
In Part 1 of this series, I discussed the giant Arapaima fish which is inspiring better designs for body armor. In this episode, we leap from the fresh waters of the Amazon and other parts of the world to the skies of southern and southeast Asia, to learn about how butterflies are providing their own source of inspiration.
In the BBC podcast series “30 Animals That Made us Smarter”, butterflies are (so far) featured not once, but three times. The first two:
This episode, however, is about biomimicry threaded through a project to significantly improve solar panel efficiency thanks to the Common Rose butterfly, featured in the top photo in the blog post.
So - what’s the story here?
Butterflies have no way to generate heat internally – they are cold-blooded. They are constantly ‘harvesting’ solar energy – it’s a heat tactic to warm up their internal temperature. California Institute of Technology scientist Radwanul Hasan Siddique explains, in the paper, “Bioinspired phase-separated disordered nanostructures for thin photovoltaic absorber”,
“The nanopatterned absorbers achieve a relative integrated absorption increase of 90% at a normal incident angle of light to as high as 200% at large incident angles, demonstrating the potential of black butterfly structures for light-harvesting purposes in thin-film solar cells.”
This team was able to create the structure organically – creating plastics which naturally organize itself into a lattice structure. Doubled the amount of light collection, especially at “off angles” or indirect sunlight.
Below you can see figures depicting the process, and a closeup of the structure – something that is not an ‘obvious engineering solution’ – something we’re taught about from …butterflies:
Could your project use some bio-inspiration? Check out the podcast, 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter!
Overall source: R.H. Siddique el al., "Bioinspired phase-separated disordered nanostructures for thin photovoltaic absorbers," Science Advances (2017). advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/10/e1700232
This is the first part of a two-part series that is inspired by a tremendous BBC podcast called “30 Animals That Made Us Smarter”. The real theme here is biomimicry – which is defined by the Biomimicry Institute as “a practice that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges — and find hope along the way”.
For project managers, the overall takeaway is one of innovation. Actually, not really innovation but rather, learning. When you think of it, biomimicry is not that different from a project lessons-learned meeting.
This particular podcast episode is very short - and yet inspired me to do follow up ‘fishing around’ on the topic, which in this case was about a fish - the Arapaima Giga - that is impervious to the attack of the infamous piranha. From a recent Reuters story:
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego and University of California, Berkeley on Wednesday described the unique structure and impressive properties of the dermal armor of the fish, called Arapaima gigas. They said their findings can help guide development of better body armor for people as well as applications in aerospace design.
The fish, also known as pirarucu, gets up to 10 feet (3 meters) long and weighs up to 440 pounds (200 kg). Arapaima, a fish that can breathe air and survive up to a day outside of the water, inhabits rivers in Brazil, Guyana and Peru infested with piranhas, known for razor-sharp teeth, incredible bite strength and deadly feeding frenzies.
It's all about the design of the scales. Millions of years of evolution have developed a ‘best-practice’ combination of materials. Humans can learn from – and take advantage of – this evolution. From the story:
The scales, (scientists) found, have a hard, mineralized outer layer to resist penetration that is bound to a tough-but-flexible inner layer by collagen – the main structural protein in skin and other connective tissues in the body.
This structure means the scales can become deformed when bitten by a piranha but are not torn, broken or pierced, protecting the fish from injury.
Of course, this has immediate use in human body armor, so of course this story caught the attention of this industry, as described in this article from Body Armor News.
For those interested in the detailed science of the giga’s body armor, there is a feast of information in this article from Sci-News. Below is a diagram from the article showing the structure of the scale design.
Image credit: Yang et al, doi: 10.1016/j.matt.2019.09.014.
Since the study was funded by the US Air Force, the research is publicly available here:
For those of us just more curious about what this giant fish looks like, I suggest this video from NatGeo.
In it, we learn that this fish has adapted in another way: it has developed an air sac – akin to a lung – and can gulp oxygen from the air. As oxygen in its habitat begins to decline due to climate change, this may give it another advantage over other fish.
But the focus here is on its body armor and the way in which we can learn from its evolution.
In Part 2 of this series, we will go from the water to the air as we study a butterfly whose markings may lead to a huge breakthrough in solar power.
In northeastern Massachusetts you will find a town called Gloucester. Importantly, it is properly pronounced “GLAW-stah”, not “Glow-chester”. Not even close.
This post, despite the title, is not about pronunciation. Rather, it somehow interweaves portfolios, copper paint, whales, and something (I am not making this up) called a Snotbot®.
Really, this is a Program Management story. The Program is that of the Ocean Alliance. Remember, a Program is a collection of projects, which, managed together, can achieve benefits not available if they were managed separately. You could probably argue that this is a Portfolio as well. We can have that argument later. For now, let’s discuss the initiatives of the Ocean Alliance, because they are interesting and important no matter what we call them.
At the forefront of this is Chief Executive Dr. Iain Kerr, who joined the group 30 years ago, being offered a job captaining research vessels in the Galapagos by none other than Roger Payne, famous for his discovery and promotion of whale song. We could easily do an entire blog post (and may yet) on Roger Payne. For now, bookmark him as a famous person who brought Iain Kerr into the Ocean Alliance, and now it’s Kerr who has been the chief executive of the Ocean Alliance organization since 1990.
I’ll discuss two of the projects in the Ocean Alliance’s portfolio (I settled on Portfolio after studying the group for a while).
The first of these two projects involves the aforementioned Snotbot®. Let’s consider the project to be the introduction of this tool, and now the product of the project – the Snotbot – is in operation. So what is a Snotbot?
From the Ocean Alliance webpage:
SnotBot® is a modified consumer drone which flies through the blow of a whale and collects exhaled “snot” on petri dishes. This blow contains a treasure trove of valuable biological information: DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, microbiomes and potentially many other biological compounds/indicators of the animal’s health and ecology. Best of all, the whale doesn’t even know we are there: This is a non-invasive tool that is safer for the animals and cheaper and more effective for the user.
Advantages of Snotbot:
Democratizing Science: A single tool that can collect a wide range of data but that costs relatively little represents a paradigm shift in the way we study whales. Drones can empower groups in the developing world, enabling them to conduct research and collect data on marine mammals that they would not be able to do using the research vessel model.
Benign: Ocean Alliance was founded by Dr. Roger Payne on the premise of studying whales without doing them harm. Especially when working with endangered species, it is vital not to add to the stresses facing the animals while conducting research. During 7oo approaches to whales to collect snot samples, there have only been 3 reactions to the drone.
Vast range of data: The blow samples that SnotBot collects contain DNA, stress and pregnancy hormones, and microbiomes, and possibly other indicators of the animal’s health.
Below is a photo and a video to show you this amazing innovation in action.
The second of these two projects is a more traditional construction – or rather, restoration project, having very much to do with the town of Gloucester, famous as the first seaport of the United States, and famous of course, the Fisherman Memorial statue, as depicted in the header of this blog post.
However, Gloucester is also the home of a “manufactory” of copper paint, after two men (Tarr and Wonson) invented an elixir of copper oxide and other substances, which, when painted on the hulls of ships, prevented the “fouling” of these vessels by barnacles and other sea life. They received a patent for the paint in 1863 and began manufacturing it here in Gloucester, shipping it in vast quantities, worldwide.
Photo: (C) Cape Ann Museum
It had an effect on seagoing vessels of all kinds, from small boats to warships. Read more about the fascinating history of this copper paint here. Indeed, you can learn about the history of the Tarr and Wonson Manufactory in the video below.
The buildings eventually became abandoned and fell into disrepair.
Dr. Kerr and the Ocean Alliance has taken on the project of restoring these landmark buildings – making them their headquarters.
Here’s a video tour of Copper Paint factory:
The Ocean Alliance is up to much more that these two projects – you can see that clearly at their website.
Whether you call their work a Portfolio or a Program, you can see that this is an example of an organization focused on good. It’s inspiring!