Technology in the forestry industry has had a long, storied history. From the inception of river raft transports to forest railways to the first portable chainsaw, the industry has never been a stranger to seeking out new advancements. And when it comes to monitoring plant health, performing inspections, and improving safety, a few forestry enterprises have begun exploring drone use across their operations, with many already realizing its benefits.
Globally, there are over 900 million hectares of natural forests used for wood production, with the economic value of industrial wood north of $200 billion dollars. Managing such vast stretches of land, forestry projects can be incredibly time-consuming and extremely tedious. What’s more, most processes have to be executed manually or with the naked eye. With operations managers surveying such large swaths of land over only a few days, their conclusions were often muddled and inaccurate.
Some of these challenges include:
- Densely populated areas make it difficult to survey the land entirely on foot
- Forest inventory management, which relies on in-field sampling, are based on estimates and are rarely precise
- All trees are treated with the same two or three fertilizers without site-specific analysis
- Inspections are time-consuming and laborious, sometimes taking days to complete
- Disease and infestation checks performed manually, resulting in inaccuracies
With operating costs on the rise and an influx in redundant staffing hours, it didn’t take long for companies to recognize these challenges desperately needed a solution.
Aerial imagery captured by drones creates a complete, detailed picture of the forest, providing comprehensive insights and analysis. Managers found operations could be run from a single location, dispatching a drone to photograph the acreage’s whole. This automated process cut unnecessary labor hours and overall operation costs. For enterprises that have begun exploring drone technology as a vital forestry tool, they’ve been presented with an entire suite of solutions:
- Overhead photographic insight into hard-to-inspect areas.
- Measuring volumes quickly while providing accurate tree counts
- Mapping harvest units, and conducting post-harvest waste assessments
- Inspections completed in a fraction of the time
- Assess plant health and damage
- Learn site-specific fertilization treatments
- View 3D images of forests
Drones can also be used to provide early fire detection, practically eliminating the risk of losing thousands of acres to sudden forest fires.
Several companies are viewing the adoption of drones as a significant competitive advantage. Forestry giants such as Domtar, the world’s second-largest producer of uncoated paper in the world, and Stimson Lumber, one of the oldest continuously operating wood product companies in the U.S., have already been experimenting with drone technology.
The use of drones is absolutely the biggest advance I’ve seen in our business in a long time. They improve our efficiencies, the accuracy of our calculations, they save us time and keep our foresters safe.
- Doug Teale, Sustainability Manager, Domtar's Ashdown, Arkansas Mill
Also at the Ashdown mill, a duo of drones are deployed to monitor trees for potential disease as well as any invasive species. Specifically, trees affected by the Ips beetle, a common pest that burrows under tree bark and causes extensive damage, can now be quickly checked for infestations. After executing these flights, Domtar realized these disease checks could be completed in 20 minutes, rather than the usual half day's work.
Stimson Lumber, meanwhile, has utilized drones to measure rock stockpile volumes and plans on using them to identify tree species, identify rock sources, and locate hotspots from fires.
There’s a host of successes the forestry industry can achieve if they implement drones into their operations, including further in-depth analysis through digital elevation models, monitoring harvest operations, and performing survival assessments and stream inspections. Drones are proving to be effective and relatively affordable forest management tools, and with more and more companies tapping into the technology, the future for the forestry industry looks bright.