Standardising precision forestry
AS THE human population rapidly increases, the demand for natural resources understandably rises too, but with this comes more of a responsibility to maintain our delicate eco-system. As with most industries, there has never been more pressure on forestry operations to produce more with less, including less land, man-made pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, and a smaller pool of qualified workers. Despite these challenges, forestry workers must still keep up with growing demand of domestic and international needs.
Automation technologies are currently revolutionising other agricultural operations, such as satellite driven positioning systems for planting and harvesting, and remote sensors which measure changes in soil fertilisation. With many traditional forestry practises having been used for over a century or more, is it time to fully standardise the technology used to manage one of the earth’s most vital resources? Carlos Gonzalez, general manager of 3D Laser Mapping, explores this issue.
‘Precision Forestry’ is defined by the use of intelligent, information based forestry systems which use tools and technology to make datadriven decisions based on accurate data collected in a range of ways. This includes remote sensing, navigation systems and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These automated technologies measure, record, process and analyse multi-source data which can then be used for more efficient management of operations including reducing waste and improving profitability.
One technology which is starting to see widespread use in forestry data acquisition is Light Detection and Ranging systems (LiDAR). These allow operators to measure in three dimensions with the added benefit of being able to scan above and below dense vegetation. This gives critical business information such as forest inventory calculations, Diameter at Breast Height figures and even detection of changes in both the canopy and wider physical landscape.
In 2013, Dr Jim O’Hehir was awarded a Gottstein Fellowship to investigate the adoption of precision forestry in South Australia by studying the systems used in South Africa. With similar considerations to be made to address disease protection, plantation and water legislation, comparisons could be made as to the benefits of standardising the approach to precision forestry using LiDAR.
“Precision forestry basically collects data to help make more informed plantation management decisions”, explained Dr O’Hehir. “We now have the capability through advanced GPS systems to collect significant amounts of data, but unless we can organise and use this data to assist in our decision making it’s not much use.”
A problem shared
The key to making precision forestry technologies more accessible lies in analysing and applying the data collected in a way which is meaningful to all stakeholders. LiDAR systems allow for the collection of accurate data which can then be used to create a comprehensive terrain model. As technology has now progressed, mobile LiDAR systems are making it easier to cover large areas quickly, with enhanced accuracy. Airborne systems penetrate the tree canopy, enabling the underlying terrain to be assessed rapidly and remotely to assist in harvest planning, regeneration works and volume calculations. The same data can then be used in condition monitoring projects, biodiversity studies and forest fire behaviour models.
Many tools currently being used in precision agriculture can be applied to precision forestry, but with less funding and more restrictions, there is a distinct need for collaboration on projects with other organisations. A good example of this is the Protecting Our Coastal Communities (POCC) project, which was primarily intended for analysing flood risk and urban development issues along the Queensland coastline. The data collected from this state and local government funded project was shared to allow for the monitoring of coastal forests in the area, without additional scans being performed specifically for this application.
The Land and Property Management Authority based in Bathurst, NSW, has an ongoing LiDAR project where data is continually being acquired and shared with Forests New South Wales. LiDAR data covering over 43% of the total native forest of the state now exists with widespread coverage amounting to over 1,000,000 ha.
Thinking outside the square
Embracing automation technology such as LiDAR can not only benefit operations in terms of efficiency, it also has a large effect on the sustainability of forestry operations outside of the obvious. Many see automation simply as a threat to job security, but high levels of advancement in this kind of technology actually give the opportunity to optimise existing operations, rather than exploring expansion and new opportunities. Creating a sustainable industry also relies on attracting skilled workers to the sector. Automation technology brings the opportunity to attract a new skill-set to the industry, without having to rely on agricultural or environmental training to bring about positive change.
Our need to obtain a balance between conservation and production in Australia’s native forests is key to the industry and ecosystem’s sustainability. Many already use remote sensing practices to calculate wood inventory and canopy heights, though there is room for a more widespread use of systems such as LiDAR to assist with more sustainable management of forests, addressing issues such as forest fires and parks management. The potential benefits that the acquired data can bring to all stakeholders far outweighs the learning curve which may be needed in the first instance.
Screenshot of LiDAR data showing topographical information referenced by a fallen tree.
Digital terrain models are a key tool in precision forestry, enabling calculations for wood inventory and harvest planning.
Pointcloud of a forest stand to calculate DBH and LAI.