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  • Colton Collins

Collecting In the Future

My father, Mark Collins, spent much of his career as a collector, searching in some of the most remote forests in the world hoping to find new and interesting Zingiberales. He played a part in naming and introducing many Heliconia to the industry including H. lawrenciana 'Red Velvet', H. penduloides 'Perfect Darling', and H. orthotricha 'Eden Pink'. My brother and I enjoyed talking with him about his adventures. However, we didn’t want to talk about Heliconia because what he had to say would just go over our heads. We didn’t talk about what he did in his free time because…let’s just say he enjoyed experiencing what different cultures had to offer and he didn’t want to corrupt us. Instead, we talked about the one thing children of Generation Y know about, technology. We discussed future technologies that we believed would benefit a collector while out in the field removed from civilization. This article summarizes our conversations and discusses three primary technologies that could enhance overall safety and increase discovery rates of future collectors. Once thought to be only science fiction, all of these technologies are already prototypes and are expected to revolutionize the field throughout this century.

Heliconia lawrenciana 'Red Velvet'

Interactive Satellite Maps

Interactive Satellite Maps have two main functions that benefit collectors. The first is the ability to store and visually display large amounts of data. Currently, satellite maps can display past collection sites, protected areas, ecological niche models and much more. In the future, these maps will not only be able to display past collection points but also current collection areas. With GPS devices attached to collectors, they will be able to record the exact routes and areas they have collected from. Complementing this technology is buddy-tracking. Buddy-tracking allows multiple collectors to go out in the field and keep track of where their colleagues currently are and where they have collected, minimizing searching the same areas twice. This technology is currently being tested by the US military. A select few technologically equipped Marines are applying this technology on the battlefield to keep track of friendly and enemy troops thus lifting the fog of war and reducing casualties by friendly fire.

The second function of interactive satellite maps is their ability to identify plant species. Currently, high resolution aerial photography is used as a forest management tool in the Northwestern United States and elsewhere around the world. At this point in time, the detail of the imagery allows taxonomists to visually distinguish conifers at a species level. Companies such as Apple and Google are using military grade cameras to make even higher resolution imagery available to the public in the near future. These cameras will be able to clearly photograph objects as small as four inches wide.

Kaempferia elegans

As a collector, imagine standing at one end of a valley ridge and using Google Earth to locate and identify Kaempferia elegans leaves on the opposite end.

Interactive satellite maps increase the safety of collectors by allowing them to know where they and their colleagues are and by knowing the exact areas to stay away from. These maps also allow for more focused searches. By searching in unexplored areas the efficiency and rate of heliconia discoveries will increase. In the near future, these maps can be displayed on smart phones and tablets. Before mid-century, there will be a new platform, internet contact lenses.

Internet Contact Lenses

In the future, rather than having cell phones and lap top computers, there will be glasses and contact lenses that can connect to the internet. By simply blinking, an image similar to a desktop screen will be projected two feet out in front of the user. The user can then use either voice or hand commands to navigate and find files, search online databases, and take pictures. Currently, Google, Inc. and several European companies have created prototypes of internet glasses while Babak A. Parviz and his team at Washington State University is leading research in internet contact lenses.

These glasses allow its user to go online and stream data. Weather updates, email, video conferencing with colleagues and connecting with loved ones, all while out in the field will be possible. Collectors of the future will no longer have to deal with language barriers and translators. Using speech recognition software, the user will be able to understand someone speaking another language through subtitles. For example, if your native language is set for English and someone is talking to you in Spanish, English subtitles will appear on your screen projected by your lenses. Translated speech in the form of audio can be fed into a user’s earpiece. However, speech recognition software will be imperfect due to its inability to account for all idioms and slang.

Collectors will one day be able to use these lenses to identify plants. Currently, apps such as Leafsnap use leaf recognition software to identify trees (in the Northeast, US) based on leaf characteristic. By simply taking a picture of a tree’s leaf, the leaf recognition software is able to narrow down the identity of the tree to several species. A user can also use the app to access the ecology of selected species. Leading the development of this technology is Dr. John Kress of the Smithsonian Institution along with programmers and researchers from Columbia University and the University of Maryland. In the future, databases will expand and this software will be able to identify plants across the US and possibly the rest of world. By the turn of the century, software and hardware technology will be developed to the point of not only identifying leaves, which are essentially 2D objects, but also 3D objects like flowers or animals. By simply looking at a flower contact lenses will be able to identify it all while downloading its ecology and natural history from the web.

This leaf identification software could eventually be uploaded to powerful satellites or cameras used for aerial photography. With this combination of technologies one could simply access a satellite feed using contact lenses from an office or home and identify plant species in the middle of the Amazon.

This technology will give collectors all of the benefits of interactive satellite maps, reduce communication barriers with local people, and increase safety by also being able to identify poisonous plants, insects, snakes, etc. The contact lenses will also be equipped with bio-trackers that will monitor the user’s blood sugar, hydration and other health factors. Using these contact lenses will also increase discovery rates by allowing non-professionals to make discoveries and contribute to scientific databases.

Internet contact lenses

Internet contact lenses will be powered by PV cells or wirelessly by Radio Frequency (RF). Photo Credit: Surfdaddy Orca

Handheld DNA Sequencers

Handheld DNA sequencers are not a new idea. It has long been a dream of taxonomists to one day be able to take a small sample of plant DNA while out in the field and instantly get an output of plant identification. Currently, Oxford Nanopore Technologies, a biotech company based in the UK has developed what they call “MinION”. MinIon is about the size of a thumb drive and is powered using a USB port. At a cost of $900 dollars, it can sequence 150 million base pairs in six hours, using a computer’s own CPU to process the data. In accordance with Moore’s Law, this technology will get faster and cheaper. In addition to sequencing DNA, by the turn of the century small phone size devices will be able to identify plant chemical properties which will greatly increase the discoveries of potential pharmaceuticals. Handheld DNA sequencers will also increase discovery rates by allowing amateurs to contribute to global plant databases.

Photo Credit: Paul McCollum

With the increasing rate of habitat depletion, the importance of collecting has never been greater. Hopefully advances in technology will increase the productivity and number of collectors so that all the worlds’ plant species can be identified before it’s too late.

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