The project „Flora Incognita – Plant Identification with a Smartphone“ of the Technical University of Ilmenau and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena was awarded as an official project of the „UN Decade of Biological Diversity“. This prize is awarded to projects that are exemplary in their commitment to the conservation of biodiversity in the world. The semi-automatic detection of wild flowering plants in Thuringia with a smartphone is designed to increase awareness of biodiversity in the population and ultimately contribute to their conservation.
Biodiversity is endangered in almost all countries of the world. Species knowledge is a fundamental prerequisite for the protection and conservation of biodiversity. But people are less and less aware of the plants and animals that surround them. Conservation associations and scientists in our society complain about decreasing species knowledge, even among biologists. Plant identification with conventional books is complex for the layperson, time-consuming and difficult through the use of numerous technical terminologies. And photo books that are easier than textbooks are often not available for example in the field or on a Sunday walk. Studies show that even students know only a few plant and animal species. This development is dangerous for nature conservation. With dwindling knowledge of animals, plants, and their ecological relationships, the willingness of the population to advocate nature protection and environmental protection is decreasing.
Digital communication technologies and mobile devices such as smartphones or tablets, which have become part of our daily lives, can close this gap. In the research project „Flora Incognita“ – Unknown Plant World – scientists at the Technical University of Ilmenau and the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena are developing a method that allows semi-automatic identification of higher flowering plants using mobile devices. The process is intuitive enough to inspire even laypersons: the smartphone camera captures pictures of the flower. Thereafter, the plant is automatically detected by recognition software and compared with an Internet-based database. Environmental and location factors are also included into the recognition, and if in doubt, users can answer further questions about the specific situation or mark parts of the image. Through the automatic image recognition, combined with user interactions, the plant species is finally identified. In this way unequivocally identified plants not only continue to educate the user but together with their location, the information is transmitted to central databases of nature conservation authorities and research institutions from where they are then made available to private users and authorities in an open platform. Using these databases, researchers can also scientifically document species and their changes – for example, the spread of invasive species.
The United Nations have declared the decade from 2011 to 2020 to be the Decade of Biodiversity, with the aim of stopping the worldwide decline in biodiversity. To promote social awareness of biodiversity in Germany, the German UN Decade regularly awards projects worthy of imitation. The jurors of this competition rated the project „Flora Incognita – Plant Identification with a Smartphone“ as „an important sign for the commitment to biodiversity in Germany“. „It is a great experience to work in such an interdisciplinary team of biologists, physicists, media technicians, and computer scientists“, the two project leaders Prof. Patrick Mäder (JP) and Dr. Jana Wäldchen unanimously confirm. Beate Schrader, head of the Thüringen Nature Conservation Foundation and Dr. Werner Westhus of the Thuringian State Institute for the Environment and Geology presented the award to honor the participants‘ commitment to living diversity as part of a global strategy so that as many people as possible get inspired by these exemplary activities.
„We are very pleased with the recognition of our research activities,“ said Prof. Kai-Uwe Sattler, Vice-Rector for Science, TU Ilmenau. „We are proud to make a sustainable contribution to the conservation of biodiversity and are happy that the synergies of the TU Ilmenau with the Max Planck Institute are publicly appreciated.“
Prof. Markus Reichstein, Director of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry, also confirms: „The cooperation between university and non-university research as well as the groundbreaking combination of ecology, geosciences, and artificial intelligence is becoming a model here.“