Desertification, for those of you who don't know, is a catch-all term
used to refer to the process that occurs when a particular environment
becomes increasingly arid, eventually losing bodies of water,
vegetation, and wildlife. It's troublesome, it's serious, and it's effectively irreversible. Although we have general ideas of what causes it - human beings being irresponsible with their resources is a big factor - it's actually an incredibly complex environmental issue.
That's probably why no one has actually found a solution...yet.
Industrial designer Shlomi Mir is intimately familiar with desertification and its impact. He's based in Jerusalem, which is situated in a region not exactly known for having a damp climate. The trouble, of course, is that the environment there seems to become more arid with each passing year - and no one's quite sure how to stop it.
"We don't know how deserts spread and how dunes move," noted Mir. "We need more information in order to develop algorithms to predict where the next problems will be -- and how it's possible to fix them." The problem, of course, is that gathering this information isn't exactly an easy task.
"Land-based autonomous systems have always been the biggest challenge," Mir explained. "It's much harder for something to get around on land. Traversal requires more power, and there are many more obstacles one might encounter.
With this in mind, Mir - after spending a bit of time studying the desertification issue - came up with the concept of Tumbleweed: a round, autonomous wind-powered robot designed to roll along the desert sands, gathering information as it went. Originally, Mir also intended to pack the robot with seeds, as well; it would drop seeds into the desert sands as it rolled along, eventually allowing plant life to return to the region. After a bit more research, he realized that such a concept wasn't really workable.
"It's not like if you spread seeds in the desert, it will become green; it's much more complicated than that," he explained to Wired. "There's no real silver bullet in an ecological problem like desertification, and gathering information would be far more beneficial to scientists than a TED-esque solution."
"I think we have to be really honest with ourselves about what an idea can and cannot do," he added.
Since his realization, he's been working closely with researchers to modify his Tumbleweeds in order to make them smaller and nimbler. The idea is that a swarm of these little robots could be released into a desert region, recording each others' motion across the sands and allowing scientists to map out wind patterns across the dune. This in turn could help them figure out how the dunes move - and how to prevent the sand from spreading.
So how exactly does the Tumbleweed accomplish this?
Well...it pretty much moves just like a real tumbleweed. The robot's structure is composed of robust steel, and relies on tension. What this means is that Tumbleweed can adapt its shape based on what path it wants to take; onboard computer systems and sensors are powered using a kinetic motor. Although it can't actually control its direct path, Mir designed the robot so that it will respond to favorable wind conditions; until a gust comes along, Tumbleweed can simply flatten itself out and play the waiting game.
Desertification is a serious environmental problem, and far too complicated for a simple, catch-all solution. While the Tumbleweed might not be the ultimate answer to the encroaching sands, it's definitely a good start. Equipped with new information gathered by a fleet of Tumbleweed drones, scientists might finally come to understand desertification...and how to halt it.