An invasive Ailanthus altissima, growing by the side of the road, Source: Micromacro

Austrian autobahn service fights invasive plant species with AI

Austrian autobahn service fights invasive plant species with AI

The software uses a regular camera to identify particular species that are as tall as 20 centimetres

A Viennese company called Micromacro has developed an AI-powered tool that can detect invasive plant species. The tool uses a regular camera, feeding video into the tool, which is able to reliably detect and identify harmful species that are as small as 20 centimetres from the ground.

The tool itself has been slowly gaining popularity with Austrian municipalities and publicly owned companies. One of the early adopters of the tech is Groß-Enzersdorf, a small commuter town near Vienna, while one of the biggest new users is ASFINAG, the development and management company for Austria’s autobahn network.

Protecting municipal budgets and small rural roads

Gottfried Rother, City Councillor for Road Construction in Groß-Enzersdorf, was quoted in an official statement explaining that using the innovative software was extremely useful for a small municipality like his.

He continued by pointing out that rural communities like his have a road network of about 100 kilometres and not nearly enough funds to maintain all of it. Consequently, the municipality can do major renovation only every 40 years or so.

By using the tool, they can pick out invasive tree species, that can damage the concrete and asphalt. This damage can derail the multi-year municipal road network plan, making early intervention a powerful tool.

Invasive species in Austria

Rother focused particularly on the Tree of Heaven, also known as Ailanthus altissima or the Götterbaum. It is a Chinese invasive tree species that can grow up to 15 metres in 25 years and is incredibly sturdy and stubborn when it comes to removal.

Additionally, the tree releases a toxin into the ground, pushing other plant species away and, consequently, insects. The Ailanthus thus is a serious issue for local biodiversity and infrastructure. In humans, it can be a source of pollen allergies.

With the AI, the only thing authorities need to do to identify and locate these species is to take a short drive, while the camera and software do the work. Then, the removal process can begin.

Some of the most effective ways to remove the Ailanthus include introducing a genetically engineered fungus, that will take two years to wither the tree. Another is known as the ringing method – 90% of the bark is cut off, exposing the stem. This causes the roots to wither within a year.

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