UK invests in monitoring of natural environment

Field researcher biologist examines soil sample

New sensing systems for monitoring of our waterways, habitats, soil and greenhouse gas emissions will receive £12 million funding from NERC, Defra and Innovate UK.

The Innovation in Environmental Monitoring programme has been designed to support UK academic institutions, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) and large companies in their development of novel monitoring technologies and systems-based approaches. It will drive UK growth and commercial opportunity in this sector through the development of new products, processes and services.

This represents an important step forward in our efforts to protect the environment, as trusted monitoring data is crucial to assessing the effectiveness of interventions and informing decisions about targeting resources appropriately.

Monitoring our natural resources

High quality environmental monitoring is essential for meeting environmental goals in the UK and worldwide, underpinning government policy, emerging green finance markets and driving sustainability in the private sector.

Monitoring enables us to track the status of our natural environment, measure the success of interventions that tackle climate change and detect natural disasters.

As part of this programme, £7 million has been awarded to 13 research-led investments, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Driving green growth

The collaborations are located across the UK, to improve capability for monitoring the following.

Biodiversity and invasive species

The development of biodiversity monitoring techniques, such as eDNA, will help us to understand more about how we can meet the target to halt the decline in species by 2030. Invasive non-native species (INNS) are one of the top five threats to global biodiversity and cost the economy nearly £4 billion a year.

Water quality

Exploring the use of satellite sensors for monitoring water quality will help to support the government’s effort to clean up waterways.

Soil health

A software tool to improve the integrity of carbon credits based on change in soil organic carbon, to help support the sustainable management and restoration of the UK’s soils.

Greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane

More efficient methods for the measurement of greenhouse gas emissions will offer a boost in the effort to meet the aim of reaching net zero. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and over a 20-year period it is estimated to be 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide.

The investment will enable researchers and innovators to harness the potential of new sensing and monitoring technologies, such as:

  • artificial intelligence
  • digital twinning
  • high-performance computing to create new information services for research, government and businesses

Delivering new systems and approaches

The projects draw on cutting-edge UK science to develop and operationalise new monitoring approaches. These include audio monitoring to detect invasive insect species, sampling DNA from the air to monitor biodiversity and new passive sensor technologies to detect water pollutants.

Innovations funded through this work aim to improve the quality and sustainability of sensing capability, while reducing costs. This supports the delivery of NERC’s strategic delivery plans as well as Defra’s key commitments, including the 25 Year Environment Plan.

Creating a cleaner environment

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

This funding will support our world-leading scientists develop new capabilities for understanding and monitoring the natural environment and allow us to develop better quality evidence faster and more efficiently – in turn helping us create a cleaner and greener environment.

There is also terrific potential for any successful environmental monitoring products and services to be exported internationally, supporting nature recovery globally and boosting the reputation of the UK scientific community.

Science Minister Andrew Griffith said:

This government has a world leading track record on a cleaner environment. This £12 million backing for research will unlock game-changing tools to track biodiversity and monitor water quality, which are key to those efforts. Not only will these technologies help us protect the environment, but this support will boost the businesses behind them, by bringing these tools to market sooner.

Supporting outstanding research

Dr Iain Williams, Director of Strategic Partnerships for NERC, said:

This investment by NERC and Defra will help to deliver a step-change in environmental monitoring, modelling and analysis.

It supports our ambition to help businesses to grow through the development and commercialisation of new products, processes and services, supported by an outstanding research and innovation ecosystem.

Further funding from Innovate UK to support this programme will be awarded soon.

Further information

Further details of the projects:

Next generation passive sampling for monitoring organic contaminants in water

Dr Adrian Nightingale, University of Southampton

Collaborators: University of Portsmouth, Environment Agency, Testcombe Fishing, T E Laboratories Ltd (Ireland), WildFish, Waters Ltd, Quantem Analytics OÜ (Estonia).

Developing paper ‘origami’ eDNA sensors for real-time public surveillance of invasive species

Dr Carl Soulsbury, University of Lincoln

Collaborators: Cranfield University, UKCEH, BioData Networks Ltd, Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, Lincolnshire Chalk Streams Project, Waterlife Recovery Trust, Greater Lincolnshire Nature Partnership.

Creation, optimisation and validation of an airborne environmental DNA sampling asset for terrestrial biodiversity monitoring

Dr Joanne Littlefair, University College London

Collaborators: Natural England, National Physical Laboratory, Hamerton Zoo Park, Life Sciences Building (Canada).

Enhanced Methane Monitoring Precision with a Multi-Agent UAV System Solution (EMPreSS)

Dr Paul Balcombe, Queen Mary University of London

Collaborators: Royal Holloway University of London, BP, Future Biogas, University College London, The University of Manchester, Colorado State University, UT Austin (US), Emissions Insights Limited, EQMV.

Greenhouse gas Emission Monitoring with Innovative aNd low-cost Instruments (GEMINI)

Dr Paul Mann, Northumbria University

Collaborators: UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Eigensense Ltd, Semphos Ltd, Universität Hamburg (Germany), Université of Montréal (Canada), Finnish Meteorological Institute (Finland).

A scalable, integrated systems-based approach to monitoring water quality from headwaters to river outlets (SenseH2O)

Dr Peter Hunter, University of Stirling

Collaborators: University of Glasgow, Innovation Centre for Sensor and imaging Systems, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Water, Hydro Nation Chair (HNC).

Soil Organic Carbon Change: A Tool for the Accreditation of land-based climate-change mitigation activities (SOCCATOA)

Dr Peter Levy, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Collaborators: Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland, University of Glasgow, Future Forest Company Ltd.

Dynamic and adaptable monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions with mobile robots

Dr Robert Siddall, University of Surrey

Collaborators: Surrey Sensors Ltd, Mantle Labs Ltd, Eurecat, Centre de Lorente (Spain), Thames Water, Forest Research.

Soprano: sounding out the environment

Dr Simon Chapple, The University of Edinburgh

Collaborators: Forest Research, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Forth District Salmon Fisheries Board.

Adaptive multi-nutrient monitoring system (ADAPT-NP)

Professor Xize Niu, University of Southampton

Collaborators: UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Environment Agency, United Utilities, Test Valley Trout (farming) Ltd, Southern Water, SouthWestSensor Ltd.

Ground-based atmospheric profiling of greenhouse gases (GAP-GHG)

Dr Damien Weidmann, Science and Technology Facilities Council

Collaborator: University of Oxford.

Monitoring & detection of organic pollution from sewage: implementation of an agile sensing network for informing river health (MaD-OPS)

Professor Darren Reynolds, University of the West of England

Collaborators: Chelsea Technologies, The Rivers Trust.

HumBug II: enabling large-scale acoustic monitoring for invasive insect species

Dr Yunpeng Li, University of Surrey

Collaborators: The University of Oxford, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, The British Bee Keepers Association, Mind Foundry, Aioi R&D Lab.

Top image:  Credit: Евгений Харитонов, iStock, Getty Images Plus, via Getty Images

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