The Role of AI and Drones in Environmental Conservation

In a recent article published on the C-LAB website, researchers from the University of Southampton employed artificial intelligence (AI) and drones to find a female partner for the critically endangered male plant species, Encephalartos woodii (E. woodii), which predates dinosaurs.

Rescuing Ancient Plants: AI, Drones, and Conservation
Study: Rescuing Ancient Plants: AI, Drones, and Conservation. Image Credit: Virrage Images/

The project aimed to bring this ancient plant back to natural reproduction and save it from extinction. Led by Dr. Laura Cinti, the research team also explored the possibility of changing the plant’s sex to create a female version, combining efforts in art, science, and technology to achieve their conservation goals.


E. woodii is a cycad, or a group of ancient, cone-bearing plants that have existed for over 300 million years, surviving multiple mass extinctions. Cycads produce male and female cones, which are essential for natural reproduction through pollen and seeds.

E. woodii was first discovered in the Ngoye Forest back in 1895, but only one single male specimen has ever been found. This specimen was relocated for safekeeping, and clones have since been propagated in various botanical gardens, including Kew Gardens in London. However, without a female counterpart, natural reproduction is impossible, meaning that the species is functionally extinct in the wild.

About the Project

The team utilized drones equipped with multispectral sensors to capture detailed images of the forest canopy and understory, focusing on areas where cycads are likely to grow. Multispectral sensors can detect plant features beyond the visible spectrum, such as health and species differences, which are not discernible to the naked eye. These images were processed by an image recognition algorithm, trained on both synthetic and real images of cycads, to identify E. woodii among other plants.

Since the drone surveys began back in 2022, the research team has scanned approximately 195 acres of the 10,000-acre Ngoye Forest. Although no female E. woodii has been found so far, the team remains optimistic that one may still exist somewhere in the unexplored sections of the forest. They plan to continue the drone surveys until the entire forest has been covered or a female is found.

In addition to the drone and AI search, the researchers investigated methods to induce a sex change in E. woodii. This aspect of the project was inspired by reports of other cycad species undergoing sex changes in response to sudden environmental changes, such as temperature fluctuations. The team explored chemical and physiological manipulations to induce a male E. woodii to produce female cones. Success in this endeavor could result in the creation of a female plant capable of producing seeds, potentially saving the species from extinction.


Although the search has not yet found a female E. woodii, the project has made significant contributions to conservation science. The drone and AI methodology has proven effective in identifying and mapping cycad populations, leading to the discovery of previously unknown cycad species and populations in the Ngoye Forest. This approach has the potential to revolutionize plant conservation by providing a non-invasive means to monitor and protect endangered species in remote and inaccessible areas.

The generated dataset of multispectral images is a valuable resource for future research. These images, coupled with the synthetic images employed to train the AI algorithm, offer a comprehensive visual documentation of the forest's cycad population. This data can serve as a foundational platform for conducting further investigations into various aspects of cycad biology, ecology, and evolution. Practitioners can leverage this dataset to delve deeper into understanding cycad species dynamics, population trends, habitat preferences, and responses to environmental changes.


The implications of this project extend beyond the immediate goal of saving E. woodii. The developed technique can be applied to other endangered plant species, aiding in habitat monitoring and species identification. By utilizing drones and AI to monitor plant health, populations, and threats, conservationists can obtain accurate and timely data to inform their efforts and protect vulnerable species.

Scientifically, the project can advance understanding of cycad biology, ecology, and evolution. The insights gained from studying E. woodii and other cycad species can contribute to the broader field of plant sciences, potentially informing conservation strategies for a wide range of endangered plants.


In summary, the initiative to find or create a female partner for Encephalartos woodii exemplified the power of combining technology, science, and art to tackle conservation challenges. By employing innovative tools like AI and drones and exploring groundbreaking techniques for inducing sex changes in plants, researchers paved the way for new methods of species preservation.

This project not only aimed to save a singular ancient species from extinction but also inspired a broader appreciation for the intricate and often precarious balance of the natural world. As this interdisciplinary endeavor continued, it stood as a symbol of hope and a testament to human ingenuity and determination in the face of ecological crises.

Journal Reference

The high-tech hunt for a lonely plant’s partner,, Accessed on 03 June 2024.

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Article Revisions

  • Jun 4 2024 - Title changed from "Rescuing Ancient Plants: AI, Drones, and Conservation" to "The Role of AI and Drones in Environmental Conservation"
Muhammad Osama

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Muhammad Osama

Muhammad Osama is a full-time data analytics consultant and freelance technical writer based in Delhi, India. He specializes in transforming complex technical concepts into accessible content. He has a Bachelor of Technology in Mechanical Engineering with specialization in AI & Robotics from Galgotias University, India, and he has extensive experience in technical content writing, data science and analytics, and artificial intelligence.


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