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An Internet of (Living) Things: exploring new opportunities for environmental monitoring

An Internet of (Living) Things: exploring new opportunities for environmental monitoring

We are delighted that in this blog Dr Kit Macleod from the James Hutton Institute discusses how his fellowship is helping Scotland’s environmental monitoring community discuss and learn about new opportunities for environmental monitoring.

A SEFARI Gateway Fellowship seeks to improve the flow of research, knowledge and expertise to and from the Strategic Research Programme to our stakeholders. Fellowships provide support for a member of staff to undertake a new knowledge exchange role to facilitate these interactions and activities with key partners.

To meet many local, national and international policy and business requirements there is a need to monitor the state of Scotland’s natural resources. These commitments span from day to day monitoring of Scotland’s freshwater bodies, so ensuring enough water of the right quality is available for a range of individuals, communities and wildlife; to longer-term monitoring of legally protected and iconic terrestrial and marine habitats and species e.g. Caledonian pinewoods and Capercaillie. A range of policy and management commitments e.g. net-zero emission targets require monitoring of Scotland’s wider landscapes. Monitoring and evaluation of policy and management actions are increasingly dependent on innovations in digital technologies including software (e.g. machine learning) and hardware (e.g. new sensors in space or in-situ); and innovations in social practices (e.g. new networks collecting and sharing data).


An example of in-situ sensors being used to record real-time water temperature 


Supporting the management of Scotland’s natural resources is a large community of professional and voluntary individuals and organisations involved in observing and checking the quantity and quality of our natural assets including habitats and species. To aid decisions and management actions and to inform land use policies, data on Scotland’s natural resources needs to be gathered, interpreted, and openly shared with an increasing number of organisations to meet their needs. Over the past five to ten years there have been several key innovations that could improve how environmental monitoring is carried out in Scotland.


Innovations in sensors for environmental monitoring

  • Monitoring is traditionally carried out by either individuals or organisations collecting information on what is present, where and what state it is in, or using one or more digital sensors e.g. soil moisture, water quality or wildlife sensors.
  • Due to advances in digital sensors and how they can be connected to the internet, they now use less power and can often be left for several months or years to monitor Scotland’s natural resources without the need for new batteries.
  • In particular, the development and application of LoRa (Long Range) technologies and establishment of the LoRaWAN protocol in 2015 have transformed what is possible with long-range, low power and low-cost sensor networks.
  • You may have heard about the ‘Internet of Things’. Internet of Things devices include one or more sensors that collect and transmit data from one place to another, see here for an introduction by CENSIS.
  • There is an increased use of satellites and drones/UAVs to collect data on Scotland’s natural assets and aid their management. For example, the European Space Agency has a range of satellites (called Sentinels) that are collecting data that is freely available for monitoring Scotland’s environment.  


It is important to ensure that environmental monitoring data which is collected - is verified, stored and made available for use as widely as possible. Whether it comes from an individual voluntary collector, or through monitoring programmes run by Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) or Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). There are a range of existing monitoring infrastructures and data pipelines in place which may not, in some instances, be working as efficiently or effectively as they could.

The second part of this SEFARI Fellowship is to work with partners to identify current blockages in this complicated network of biological recording infrastructure and identify areas for improvement. At the end of 2018, an impressive review of the efficacy and sustainability of the biological recording infrastructure in Scotland was published (The SBIF review). This review succeeded in engaging many diverse monitoring communities across Scotland (and the UK) to understand their views and needs in relation to the biological recording infrastructure. The review provided 24 recommendations to achieve five outcomes: transformed data flows, transformed service provision, transformed governance and culture, transformed funding, and transition to 2020.

I have just past the midpoint of my SEFARI Fellowship, which is due to run until October this year. From a personal perspective, I am enjoying learning more about the diverse range of environmental monitoring needs in Scotland at a time when there are increasing numbers of, national and international, examples of how innovations in digital technologies and social practices are helping meet some of these needs.

Towards the end of my SEFARI Fellowship I will share a summary of my findings and recommendations related to digital and social innovations in environmental monitoring of Scotland’s physical and biological environment. 

Dr Kit Macleod, The James Hutton Institute