Living on a prairie

Houston conservationist is helping to find new ways to protect local species and ecosystems

Memorial Park, which is currently undergoing a master plan renovation, and other Houston parks can be a great opportunity for introducing urban conservation inside the city limits. Rendering courtesy of Nelson Byrd Woltz

The Houston toad is a species that was discovered in Harris County in the 1950s. It has a very distinct, loud call that reverberates at quite a high pitch. But the Houston toad's call hasn't been heard in the city of Houston for almost 50 years. The species is locally extinct and critically endangered elsewhere. In fact, it's the most endangered amphibian in North America, says Cassidy Brown Johnson, a Rice University lecturer and president of the Coastal Prairie Partnership.

"When we think about extinction, we think of the dodo bird or the woolly mammoth," Johnson says. "But extinction is happening right underneath our noses."

The Houston Zoo has a breeding facility for Houston toad, but other than that, it's extremely unlikely that the Houston toad will ever reside naturally in its namesake city.

"We have modified the environment so heavily, that it'd be a bit of a dicey thing to do [to reintroduce the species] because there are so few of them, it's better to focus on an environment where it's still OK for them," Johnson says. The largest population of the Houston toad is actually in Bastrop, however due to the Bastrop fires in 2011, the species is only just recently back to a good place even there.

Johnson is giving a free lecture in April at Rice regarding extinction, where she'll bring her Astros-named Houston toads, Springer and Julia Morales, as her teacher aids.

Changing tides in conservation
As cities like Houston continue to be developed, scientists and researchers are challenged with finding new ways to effect conservation. Johnson says within the industry, there's been a shift in thinking when it comes to preserving nature.

"There's a new burgeoning movement in conservation called urban conservation," she says. "For a long time, if you talked to the traditional conservationists, the idea of conservation is to protect big spaces — the national and state park systems are the perfect example."

But large parks are expensive and a huge undertaking. It's still the strongest form of conservation, but introducing conservation efforts in a city — perhaps in some of Houston's parks, like Memorial Park or Hermann Park — helps not only the species of animals involved, but also educates the local population and forms a connection with residents.

"That has a twofold kind of benefit," Johnson says. "It protects the greenspace so species to live with us, and then also it makes the connection to this place we try to protect."

Of course, this type of effort is new, and there's not a lot of data to show how this would affect the ecosystem and its species, from the migratory and genetic diversity standpoints. Despite the lack of data, Johnson says this type of effort needs to happen.

"We're going to continue to manipulate the world, and maybe if we started thinking about this now, that we can get to a point were we understand enough were we can make these some sort of functioning ecosystem," she says.

Part of the shift in thinking about these ecosystems has to do with new ways of tracking species and understanding their environments.

"Technology is helping us ask a lot of these questions," Johnson says. "Ecology is surprisingly complicated. There's so many variables. ... I think technology and our advance with computing is definitely going to help us understand it."

Using preservation to solve flooding
The educational component is also very important to conservation, and Johnson is making strides on campus with her class. Last year, her department and her class introduced a pocket prairie right on the Rice campus.

Before it was the fourth largest city in America, Houston was a prairie. That type of ecosystem — thick with prairie grass — is very absorbing when it comes to rain water.

"It's really surprising to people that the trees and all this lushness is actually all artificial," Johnson says. "We know that this ecosystem evolved with the cyclical flooding events that happened here."

This movement to bring back Houston's ancient ecosystem is a new focus on a few prairie conservationist groups — and even the Harris County Flood Control. This has been going on for a while, but recent flooding events have opened the eyes of people now looking for reliable solutions to flooding problems.

"After Hurricane Harvey, people started realizing that this might be one of the solutions we could actually investigate and see if it can help us," Johnson says. "A green space is going to absorb way more water than a parking lot."

Of course, there are other flood solutions being discussed — some even incorporating tech or even a tube system underground.

"Historically, there has been some budding of heads between the environment and technology, but I really think moving forward, those two fields have to work together. We need to use technology to save the environment," Johnson says. "I think Houston is one of the places where that conversation is starting to happen."

Flood watch

Courtesy of Cassidy Brown Johnson

Prairie grass is very absorbing and can help mitigate flooding.

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Building Houston

 
 

Ty Audronis founded Tempest Droneworx to put drone data to work. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

Ty Audronis quite literally grew up in Paradise. But the Northern California town was destroyed by wildfire in 2018, including Audronis’ childhood home.

“That’s why it’s called the Campfire Region,” says the founder, who explains that the flames were started by a spark off a 97-year-old transmission line.

But Audronis, who has literally written the book on designing purpose-built drones — actually, more than one — wasn’t going to sit back and let it happen again. Currently, wildfire prevention is limited to the “medieval technology” of using towers miles apart to check for smoke signals.

“By the time you see smoke signals, you’ve already got a big problem,” Audronis says.

His idea? To replace that system with real-time, three-dimensional, multi-spectral mapping, which exactly where his company, Tempest Droneworx, comes in.

When asked how he connected with co-founder Dana Abramowitz, Audronis admits that it was Match.com — the pair not only share duties at Tempest, they are engaged to be married. It was a 2021 pre-SXSW brainstorming session at their home that inspired the pair to start Tempest.

When Audronis mentioned his vision of drone battalions, where each is doing a specialized task, Abramowitz, a serial entrepreneur and founder who prefers to leave the spotlight to her partner, told him that he shouldn’t give the idea away at a conference, they should start a company. After all, Audronis is a pioneer in the drone industry.

“Since 1997, I’ve been building multicopters,” he says.

Besides publishing industry-standard tomes, he took his expertise to the film business. But despite its name, Tempest is a software company and does not make drones.

That software is called Harbinger. Audronis explains that the real-time management and visualization solution is viewable on practically any device, including mobile or augmented reality. The system uses a video game engine for viewing, but as Audronis puts it, “the magic happens” on the back end.

Harbinger is not just drone-agnostic, but can use crowd-sourced data as well as static sensors. With the example of wildfires in mind, battalions can swarm an affected area to inform officials, stopping a fire before it gets out of hand. But fires are far from Harbinger’s only intended use.

The civilian version of Harbinger will be available for sale at the end of 2023 or beginning of 2024. For military use, Navy vet Audronis says that the product just entered Technical Readiness Level (TRL) 5, which means that they are about 18 months away from a full demo. The latest news for Tempest is that earlier this month, it was awarded a “Direct to Phase II” SBIR (Government Small Business Innovation Research) contract with the United States Department of the Air Force.

Not bad for a company that was, until recently, fully bootstrapped. He credits his time with the Houston Founder Institute, from which he graduated last February, and for which he now mentors, with many of the connections he’s made, including SBIR Advisors, who helped handle the complex process of getting their SBIR contract.

And he and Abramowitz have no plans to end their collaborations now that they’re seeing growth.

“Our philosophy behind [our business] isn’t keeping our cards close to our vest,” says Audronis. “Any potential competitors, we want to become partners.”

The company was just the two founders until five weeks ago, when Tempest’s size doubled, including a full-time developer. Once Tempest receives its SIBR check, the team will grow again to include more developers. They are currently looking for offices in the city. As Audronis says, Tempest Droneworx is “100-percent made in Houston.” Paradise may have been lost, but with Harbinger soon to be available, such a disaster need never happen again.

Dana Abramowitz and Ty Audronis co-founded Tempest Droneworks. Photo courtesy of Tempest Droneworx

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