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Drones Help Forestry Conservation Initiatives Keep the Forests Green

UAS will play a vital role in monitoring and maintaining the health of forests around the world

May 10, 2016

From 3D modeling to airborne seed planting, the ever-increasing uses for drones in forestry prove that UAS will play a vital role in monitoring and maintaining the health of forests around the world.

Many professional sectors are acknowledging the time and money-saving benefits of drone technology, finding ways for UAS to replace more expensive human efforts wherever possible. The field of forestry is not exempt from this mindset. Researchers, especially those focusing their efforts on developing areas, are often restricted by the high costs of traditional sensing equipment.

This issue of cost becomes especially troubling when considering the need for continual monitoring of the forests. In order to successfully assess the health of a forest system, repeated surveys must be conducted. For multiple sessions of commercial satellite imaging or manned flights, cost becomes a primary limitation to acquiring much-needed data.

For this reason, drones are becoming increasingly popular among forestry and conservation researchers. But in an industry that is focused on the survival of the planet and its forests, it’s not all about the money. Most researchers are far more excited about the accessibility of accurate, actionable data.

Serge Wich, who, alongside Lian Pin Koh, cofounded the nonprofit organization Conservation Drones, believes drone use in forestry gives researchers necessary monitoring abilities and flexibility.

“Now we can do [aerial surveys] whenever we want to,” Wich says. “It allows for data collection in a way that’s more flexible than ever.”
How Lidar Works
Above the canopy

Just as in other industries, drones are used to establish a bird’s-eye view to diminish the need for laborious and time-consuming tasks, such as security patrol and manual data collection. Orthomaps, the detailed, scale-corrected images provided by UAS and their software, give researchers accurate aerial representations of the forest.

Instead of surveying an entire tract of land on foot or with costly manned flights, UAVs allow foresters to monitor an area safely and efficiently, helping them detect signs of tampering, trespass, dumping, or encroachment.

Researchers like Wich are very pleased with the many opportunities that drones present. But as much as the data matters, there’s also an innate human desire to see the unseen.

“I’ve always wanted to have images of the forest, but I never could,” says Wich. “I was always in the forest, underneath, on the ground. And I always wondered what it would look like from above and how we could use that information for very timely management and research. And now I can do that.”

But even once the drone has safely landed, there’s yet more work to be done. As pretty as a detailed orthomap might be, it doesn’t provide much useful information without the right sensing equipment and analysis tools.
Infrared imagery of a palm plantation is used to observe photosynthetic activity.
Forestry UAS can be equipped with a wide variety of sensors, such as infrared and thermal imaging arrays. Another useful and versatile sensing tool is lidar; similar to radar, lidar sends a pulse of light via laser toward the intended target. The light waves reflect off the target — in this case, trees — and then return to the aerial sensor. Data is collected and assembled based on the amount of time it takes for the light pulse to travel and return to the sensor.

Patrick Lohman, vice president of partnerships at PrecisionHawk, explains that lidar allows researchers to “obtain data for insights such as tree height, tree crown diameter, wood volume, stem count, branch and foliage density, and tree species [identity].”

Despite the valuable applications of this type of sensing, many low-budget or nonprofit forestry operations cannot afford the costs of traditional manned lidar flights. For a single flight, researchers could expect to pay upwards of $15,000.

Now, manufacturers such as PrecisionHawk, XactSense, and Velodyne are creating both “unmanned scanners,” essentially all-in-one drone and lidar sensor packages, and standalone scanners that are light and compact enough to be attached to many typical UAS. The Velodyne Puck lidar sensor retails for $7,999, an impressive price considering this sensor can be used for repeated surveillance on any drone that can handle a payload of 590 grams.

Heat sensors may also be equipped to see past the canopy to detect ground-level activity. These sensors can help catch illegal poachers and loggers who may be lurking at night or in remote areas.

This new method of patrol also provides added safety. No longer required to traipse through dangerous terrain to get a complete understanding of a forest tract, scouts and inspectors with access to drones now have a better idea of what to expect before heading out.
The RTD X5 fixed-wing drone, currently used by the Jane Goodall Institute and the Ugalla Primate Project, can fly long missions under difficult conditions. Conservationdrones.org
Green machines (and software)

For many researchers, drone technology may still be unfamiliar. Luckily, a noticeable trend in forestry initiatives is the tangible excitement about UAS and their growing capabilities. This excitement, coupled with the passion to share knowledge and data with the research community, has resulted in a large, collaborative, open-source community of drone users.

Web forums like ecosynth.org foster discussions about drone forestry. Ecosynth, a project of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is “a suite of tools for mapping and measuring vegetation in three dimensions” that is fully open-source: It shares all codes and data.

The recent influx of easily accessible, affordable processing software is an important development in forestry. Even with the cost savings provided by UAS, data processing and subsequent map creation can cost thousands of dollars.

DroneDeploy, a software platform for drone mapping and 3D modeling, offers various price points based on the needs of the user. Using the more expensive precision package, DroneDeploy is capable of creating real-time orthomaps. In the past, forestry researchers would have to wait hours for footage from UAS flights to process into an orthorectified format before analysis could begin.

For larger or more commercial applications that require various data outputs, PrecisionHawk’s Algorithm Marketplace offers various analysis tools, including canopy cover and plant height analysis.

According to Lohman, additional industry-specific analysis tools are being designed. “PrecisionHawk currently has two high-level specialists focused on developing analysis tools specific to forestry,” he says. “We have built a network of corporations and universities that are building up our Algorithm Marketplace across agriculture, forestry, oil and gas, mining, and insurance.”
“It’s like a knife: You can use it to kill someone, or you can use it to cut your vegetables.”
Biomass effect

For those who don’t want to worry about the technical side of things, companies are working to bring forestry imaging data to researchers and conservationists in a way that is both accessible and affordable.

Alexander Watson, CEO of the German forestry consulting company OpenForests, is passionate about the ways in which drones can provide vital data to those in the forestry field. According to their site, OpenForests helps clients collect and use forestry data in order to implement projects that are “social, biodiverse, resilient, and financially successful.”

Watson has worked in forestry for years, using drones ranging from early remote-controlled balloons to modern fixed-wings and quads. Having watched the technology progress, he is currently interested in how modern UAS allow for the collection of clear, honest data.

“There have been a lot of scams,” he says, in regard to false advertisement of forest properties and consulting firms failing to keep their promises. Because of this, Watson emphasizes the importance of transparency among all parties.

OpenForests’ Drone Mapper project enables such transparency. Even for clients an ocean away, 3D models and orthomaps of the forests provide all necessary information to interested parties.

Foresters can sometimes be a bit hesitant to accept new technologies when tried and true methods are already being utilized. “It’s a more conservative field,” Watson explains.

But he personally views drones the same as any other tool. “It’s like a knife: You can use it to kill someone, or you can use it to cut your vegetables,” he says.

And cutting the vegetables they are, without cutting down trees. The DroneMapper project has produced some impressive and beneficial results, such as a process to make digital 3D models of individual trees.

These 3D tree models allow for an accurate measurement of a tree’s biomass, which is vital in quantifying carbon sequestration. This information is traditionally acquired by felling the trees in a specific area, drying the trees to remove any moisture, and weighing the resulting biomass. DroneMapper’s approach is more expedient, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly.

This carbon data is useful for REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) projects, which aim to measure, evaluate, and decrease the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere. This allows drones to play their part in the fight against global warming.

Despite the innovative approaches being taken by OpenForests, Watson hopes that one day the use of drones will become ubiquitous in the field, and no longer such an “exciting” phenomenon. “I hope that one day it will be like GPS,” he says.
An example of a 3D tree map created by OpenForests’ DroneMapper project. A drone circles the tree, capturing various angles to create the highly detailed models. OpenForests
The roots of the problem

Drone imagery isn’t used only for data collection, however. Forestry drones can also detect instances in which damaging or illegal activity is occurring in forests, allowing drone operators to alert local authorities.

In many parts of the world, forests are faced with constant dangers. Clear-cutting, conversion of land to farms or highly destructive palm plantations, and illegal logging are all major threats to the world’s surviving forests. Without the right perspective, these activities can often go unnoticed.

Even in national parks and protected lands, unapproved logging occurs in areas that are difficult to monitor. While illegal logging statistics vary and are often underreported, the International Criminal Police Organization’s Project LEAF reported in 2015 that illegal logging constitutes “15 to 30 percent of all timber traded globally.“

In Sept. 2014, Conservation Drones and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program both captured UAS images of the Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra as a part of their respective projects.Only a few months apart, the images show a large tract of land before and after the area was illegally logged. The use of drones is vital in cases like these, where it is clear that loggers attempted to conceal their impact by leaving a line of intact trees along the riverbank.

The Conservation Drones Asia team provided the images to the Gunung Leuser park officials, who promptly took action to stop the logging. Without the insight provided by UAS imagery, the damage could have been far more extensive.
Before and after shots of Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park, only months apart, clearly show the drastic and harmful effects of illegal logging. A barrier of intact trees along the river hides the damage from non-aerial view.
Conservation Drones and The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program
A case study of similar environmental threats is shown in “Dayaks to Drones,” a video produced by If Not Us Then Who, a project aiming to represent the stories and experiences of indigenous peoples around the world. The video captures the experiences of the Dayaks, who reside in Setulang, Indonesia. The Dayaks have traditionally fostered a symbiotic relationship with the surrounding forest, known to locals as Taneh Ulen.

Setulang inhabitants are finding it hard to preserve their land. Even though they have repeatedly rejected substantial offers from loggers to purchase the land, illegal palm oil plantations have begun to encroach on the forests. Village leaders have done their best to handle such threats diplomatically, but the forest’s size makes it difficult to determine whether these groups have left entirely, or instead continue their illicit activities in more discreet, distant tracts.
Land disputes exacerbate an already tenuous situation. Indonesia’s Consortium for Agrarian Reform reported 369 land disputes in 2013 alone, often born from unclear boundaries and inconsistent maps.

In late 2014, Indonesia implemented a one-map policy to settle such land disputes. However, the scale of the satellite imagery used by the government to map remote areas often fails to capture a high-enough resolution to represent small indigenous communities like Setulang and the precise boundaries of forests such as the Taneh Ulen.

To help get their community on the map, Irendra Radjawali, founder of the Indonesian Swandiri Institute, traveled to Setulang to introduce the Dayaks to drones.
The high-resolution drone imagery that Radjawali helped the Dayaks capture gave them the opportunity to prove to the Indonesian government where their territory, as well as the Taneh Ulen, begins and ends. This way, the government can ensure that corporate land concessions will not overlap with indigenous land in the future.
The maps provided by UAS have allowed groups like the Dayaks to preserve the integrity of their cultures, as well as the survival of the forests upon which their livelihood depends.
How Drones Create 3D Models
Illustration/Rick Johnson
Planting seeds

These continual threats to our forests play a major role in global deforestation. However, there are initiatives aimed to counteract this disconcerting trend. UK company BioCarbon Engineering, partnered with VulcanUAV, set a goal to use UAS to plant “a billion trees a year.”

Established by former NASA engineer Lauren Fletcher, BioCarbon won the 2015 Hello Tomorrow startup competition, which focuses on the use of technology to create
innovative solutions to problems in the fields of energy, food, health, and environment.

UAS are to be used in all steps of the process. The drone creates a detailed 3D map of the seeding area. These maps provide data that allows foresters to establish the most fruitful areas for future aerial seeding. BioCarbon asserts that this method of “precision forestry” increases success of seeds planted, while decreasing costs in comparison to traditional planting methods.

However, planting a billion trees a year does not necessarily mean that all of these plants will survive or flourish. Forestry professionals are skeptical; manual planting methods consider more minute details such as the depth of the seed in relation to soil type and how different species of trees should be planted in relation to one another.

That being said, the advanced mapping techniques enabled by UAS provide significant progress from previous aerial seeding methods, and there’s no denying that BioCarbon’s aims are noble. These UAS planting methods will prove beneficial if even thousands of these million seeds reach germination and growth. BioCarbon also intends to use drones to monitor the health of planted tracts in order to establish the success of planting and health of the ecosystem as a whole.
Drone imagery helps foresters and conservationists detect when palm plantations, like this established farm in Borneo, encroach upon protected forestlands.
What about the U.S.?

While it may seem as though forestry UAS are nonessential in the U.S., drones could play an important role domestically: Approximately 750 million acres of the country are covered by forestland.

Current drone regulations by both the National Parks Service and the FAA make it difficult for researchers and commercial initiatives to fly UAS. Many drone-based forestry initiatives are taking place abroad, where UAS laws are either relaxed or yet to be established.

Wich, who commented that Conservation Drones hasn’t worked in the U.S., believes that these restrictions might be inhibiting potential opportunity.“I think that there’s a lot of interest from conservation people in the U.S., but for instance, [drones are] not allowed to fly over national parks. So that limits the applicability quite substantially.”

There’s also the matter of the requirement to keep all UAS within the user’s line-of-sight. For large forestry projects, this is almost impossible. Any forest conservation initiative in compliance with this guideline would have to be executed on a much smaller scale, providing significantly less information.

A prominent use of drones for forestry in the U.S. is firefighting and fire prevention. Thanks to a special memorandum of agreement between the Department of the Interior and the FAA, approved UAS can fly during fire or search-and-rescue emergencies, even beyond visual line-of-sight.

Government agencies are also interested in utilizing drones for forestry. According to its website, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) is “highly interested in new technologies and believes there is potential to use unmanned aircraft systems to support a host of natural resource management activities, including forest health protection, wildfire suppression, research, recreational impacts, and law enforcement.”

In September 2012, the USFS created a UAS Advisory Group to help establish a program that is safe, effective, and in compliance with FAA restrictions. In September of this year, after the completion of its three-year charter, the USFS will establish its UAS program.

Despite restrictions, some conservation efforts are being made. The Nature Conservancy, a conservation organization that is present in all 50 U.S. states, has partnered with Agribotix to use UAS technology in Boulder, CO. Since operations are performed on land owned by the conservancy and are not for commercial purposes, flights like these to monitor controlled burns and inventory land are in compliance with FAA guidelines.

While restrictions are tight now, only time will tell how future regulatory changes will shape the landscape of U.S. drone use for forestry and conservation applications.
Room for growth

As long as we are living on this Earth, environmental and forestry concerns will remain crucial. UAS will likely play an increasing role; Wich is hopeful for the future of forestry drones, and anticipates there will soon be more UAS in the air.

“I really think that the next step will be an approach in which we will have swarms of drones flying over areas and obtaining data, onboard object detection, and transfer of data towards people on the ground that they can then use to base their actions on,” he says. “The next step will really be an Internet of Things, if you like.”

As drone technology continues to develop at a rapid pace, ideas like these become more feasible each day. But as crucial as the use of drones for research may be, the
images they provide also help create a better public understanding of how forestry issues evolve.

These current initiatives, and the exciting technology used to implement them, draw a great deal of attention from the public. Therein lies another potential benefit to forestry UAS — they are effectively educational campaigns about the omnipresent threats that our forests face.

“A lot of the awareness is easier when you have good visuals,” says Wich. “These systems have the ability to produce pretty stunning visuals of the conservation area. So I think it has helped us to increase awareness of some areas or bring attention to them in a different way.”

UAS are the tool of the future for conservationists. In his 2013 TedTalk, Lian Pin Koh stated, “It is clear that conservation biologists and practitioners should make full use of every available tool, including drones, in our fight to save the last remaining forests and wildlife of this planet.”

And so the fight goes on, with drones on the front lines.

Note: A version of this story appeared in the May/June 2016 issue of Drone360 magazine.
Featured image: Jonathan Dandois