How AI Will Transform the Outdoor Industry: Top 5 Predictions, Generated by ChatGPT

What was once unreal and unfathomable is becoming tangible as decades of experiments and implementations converge, intertwining our lives with artificial intelligence. The truth is, we’ve been living with AI for years. For anyone who needs reminding (especially in light of that widespread panic that AI is coming for our jobs), AI already permeates many aspects of our everyday lives.

The cars we drive were built by robots automated to perform even the most complex tasks. Intricate computing algorithms have incrementally learned and improved everything from the way we use our smartphones to the very process of gleaning research for this article. While many are fearful of the dangers of AI, we’re mostly interested in the ways it can help people—especially when it comes to improving recreation and outdoor experiences.

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Like many enthusiasts, we were intrigued by the language models launched last fall and eager to unravel their astonishing capabilities. Not only were our deepest questions answered by ChatGPT, but we were curious to peer further into the seemingly omniscient crystal ball AI holds. We wanted to find out more, so we prompted the question: What are the top ways AI can help people in the outdoors? Naturally, we wanted to check these predictions with real-world applications.

Here's an AI-assisted glimpse into the future of how artificial intelligence could impact all angles of the outdoors.

1. AI-Powered Navigation Systems

Using AI to provide real-time navigation and information can help hikers and backpackers navigate unfamiliar terrain and avoid hazards.

Google already uses AI and machine learning for everyday drivers, walkers, and cyclists. At present, we can’t imagine its Street View car (let alone a terrain drone) gaining access to the backcountry anytime soon to gather real-time data. That job is still left to satellites and those images on Google Earth that might be three years old. Most GPS units would rely heavily on cameras and sensors to provide input to machine-learning algorithms trained to recognize potential hazards and alert hikers. It’s exciting to imagine a future when we can mark an impossible river crossing as easily as a lane-blocking fender bender.

2. AI-Powered Wildlife Tracking

AI systems can help park rangers and wildlife biologists monitor wildlife populations, track migration patterns, and predict potential wildlife encounters for visitors.

Currently, American wildlife habitats are monitored and measured using a variety of techniques. Motion-activated camera traps record and provide valuable insights into numbers and behaviors of certain species. Radio tagging also helps gather data on larger predators like mountain lions and bears, along with citizens often reporting encounters with big beasts. By training AI to analyze this combined data, not only can it aid in protecting and preserving wildlife, but it can also provide more precise information to alert visitors about possible wildlife encounters and suggest measures to minimize the risk of harmful interactions.

3. Virtual Guides

AI-powered virtual guides can provide information and recommendations to visitors in real time, answering questions about trails, wildlife, and the local environment.

Visitor centers in our country’s national parks are already a wealth of info, but post-pandemic recreation has put a lot of pressure on rangers whose resources are already stretched thin. As the rest of our world becomes more automated, we hope for a futuristic version of an information kiosk where AI-assisted technology has gathered daily facts and figures that answer the most common questions adventurers have—giving new meaning to the age-old motto, "Know before you go."

4. Smart Rescue Drones

AI-powered drones can quickly locate and assist people in distress during outdoor adventures, such as lost hikers or injured climbers.

Every year, we hear stories about missing adventurers—and those are just a few of them. Even with the life-saving assistance of avalanche beacons and satellite devices, pressures on local search and rescue teams are unrelenting and enormous. By training AI drones to navigate treacherous terrain, carry medical supplies, and even analyze changes in sound to detect the slightest calls for help, tech advancements in this area could even outperform the smartest gear and sniffer dogs.

5. Predictive Maintenance for Outdoor Equipment

AI algorithms can predict when outdoor equipment such as tents, backpacks, and hiking gear will need maintenance or replacement, helping people avoid unexpected breakdowns during trips.

“Buy the best, cry once” used to be a simple mantra for anyone serious enough to shell out for foolproof gear. With products now mass-produced all over the globe, durability and reliability are swiftly outgrowing those reams of varied (and often questionable) customer reviews to guide our decisions and intel about when the glue on a backpacking tent might fail or our snowboard bindings may need replacing. Pulling data from a global network of experts (like a high-tech tuneup schedule for your car), AI could foreseeably aggregate maintenance data into a helpful app or plug-in to suggest everything from replacing the compression cords in your tent poles to hinting at the next time you need to sharpen the edges of your skis.

ChatGPT generated the predictions listed in this article. Artwork was made by Midjourney using prompts by the author.