Building on or near wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas is a known challenge in construction. Keeping up on local, state and federal regulations takes effort, and most wetlands assessment work is traditionally very low tech, conducted with clipboards and pens. But a new app seeks to automate much of the wetlands evaluation process and then instantly populate the relevant forms and documentation.
“We equip customers with better tools to gather data which provide automatic calculations and look-up tools needed to make decisions in real-time, in the field,” says Jeremy Schewe, Ecobot cofounder and chief scientific officer. “This eliminates what used to be hours of manual calculations and multiple touches of the same data, usually done when scientists returned to their offices. Hours saved can add up significantly during a large project or across hundreds of consultants at any given firm.”
Burns & McDonnell is one of the engineering firms currently testing out Ecobot in the field. “We use geospatial technologies to rapidly analyze and report data during the planning and design phases of a project,” says Sarah Soard, environmental services project manager at Burns & McDonnell. “Integration of software like Ecobot would further add to our ability to provide updates from the field and allow for more rapid project analysis… [reducing] the length of time it takes to go from initial field surveys to a ready-to-construct project. This saves our clients time and money while maintaining compliance with environmental regulations.”
Ecobot’s interface was designed in collaboration with wetland scientists, and tries to address some of the problems inherent to using a mobile app out in the middle of a marsh. The app can function without a cell signal and has a simplified interface for users fumbling through it with muddy hands.
“The offline reference materials greatly enhance the scientists’ ability to accurately and quickly document their surroundings, and Ecobot conducts all necessary calculations and provides suggested conclusions in real-time, even without an internet connection,” says Schewe.
Once all the necessary data is compiled, calculated and analyzed in the app, Ecobot generates the required U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports required to make a jurisdictional determination of any wetlands that are found. “By producing QA-ready files for our customers, we help them more swiftly provide accurate, clean, high-quality reports to the Corps, speeding the response of whether a permit, in-lieu fee or mitigation offset is required,” says Schewe.
Automating this process has allowed some Ecobot customers to start construction sooner than planned, notes Schewe. “We’ve even had some customers report beginning initial site planning in parallel with conducting wetland delineations on the ground – something that typically would have to wait for weeks after a wetland determination is completed.”
The Ecobot app is regularly updated to reflect changes in federal, state and local regulations. Ecobot developers monitor the relevant regulatory bodies, and pushes updates to make sure all applications, forms, and other reporting are in full compliance.
And as of right now, wetlands regulation is a rapidly changing landscape. Changes to the definitions of Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, part of the Clean Water Act, have already upended much about what wetlands are subject to federal oversight, and the Trump Administration has even recently suspended EPA environmental compliance rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several states have already sought to tighten their water and wetlands regulations in response to the recent federal actions, and keeping track of these shifting requirements is a full-time job.
“What is changing as a result of the current regulatory climate is the question of who has jurisdiction over certain lands—the federal government, states or landowners,” says Lee Lance, cofounder and CEO of Ecobot. “[But] the fundamental need for accurate and timely wetlands assessment remains the same to ensure sound and optimal engineering outcomes.”
Ecobot launched on the Apple App Store in December, and is available for download.