In many arid parts of the world, desertification is a major issue, and advancing deserts and loss of formerly fertile lands can have a big impact on not just the local environment, but can also affect where and how people live in those areas, many times leading to mass migrations from the country to the cities.
Like many environmental problems, in order to address it, it's important for scientists to be able to understand exactly what and where the effects are happening, which usually leads to the need for more and better data. And by taking a cue from the humble yet noxious tumbleweed, science may be able to gather data about desertification in a unique way.
As a long-time desert dweller, I'm not usually too excited about tumbleweeds (in my area, they tend to be Russian Thistle or Knapweed), but in this case, where the design of that iconic desert traveler is inspiring a tool for conservation, I'd have to say that I'm in favor of them.
The brainchild of an Israeli industrial designer, Shlomi Mir, the Tumbleweed device is an autonomous data-gathering robot that can roll across the desert, propelled by the winds, and monitor climate data and the conditions of the drylands it travels through.
"Instead of using solar panels or generators to create electricity to power motors (inherently inefficient), the round shape of the Tumbleweed and the arrangement of the sails allow it to catch the wind and roll in any direction at great speed. While in motion, a kinetic generator produces enough energy to power the onboard computer, sensors, and motor.
Like a hot air balloon, the Rover cannot control its exact path, but can decide when to move with the wind and when to wait for it to blow in a favorable direction." - Shlomi Mir
One of the original thoughts about the design of the device was to also use it to scatter seeds across appropriate areas in the desert, with the hope of holding back the desert or slowing its advance, but according to Wired, this quickly proved to be unfeasible, and instead, the focus was returned to data-gathering. Mir is said to be working with additional researchers to improve his design to make it smaller, so "swarms" of the Tumbleweeds could be deployed across sand dunes to help create 3D maps of how the wind moves across the dunes, which may lead to ideas on possible solutions for slowing down or reversing the desertification process.