BREAK­ING OUT

New Zealand Logger - - News -

Who’d have thought that drones would be­come es­sen­tial equip­ment in the for­est? But that’s just how they are start­ing to be­come. We look at some of their in­ter­est­ing uses.

IN­TER­PINE GEN­ERAL MAN­AGER, DAVID Her­ries, re­alised just how im­por­tant drones, or UAVs (Un­manned Aerial Ve­hi­cles), were be­com­ing as a work tool when he used one to take aerial footage of the dev­as­tat­ing fire that swept the Port Hills, over­look­ing Christchurch, in Fe­bru­ary of 2017.

As a mem­ber of the Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice na­tional in­ci­dent re­sponse team David was help­ing gather in­for­ma­tion about the huge fire that went on to claim the life of a he­li­copter pi­lot fight­ing the blaze, as well as de­stroy­ing nine houses and 1,600 hectares of trees and vege­ta­tion.

He just hap­pened to have a drone from his work­place with him and put it into the air to film the blaze.

The aerial views pro­vided fire­fight­ers with real-time in­for­ma­tion on how the fire was spread­ing and where they should de­ploy their re­sources. When the main fire had passed, an in­fra-red cam­era was de­ployed on the drone to iden­tify hot-spots un­der the sur­face, sav­ing hours of painstak­ing de­tec­tive work.

From that point, drones went on to be­come a front-line aerial tool with the Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice, with In­ter­pine train­ing groups of ru­ral fire fight­ers in their use and also sup­ply­ing them with UAV kits.

“I think ev­ery­one could see the value in UAVs from that mo­ment, in­clud­ing our­selves,” says David, adding that he had used drones on small fires be­fore and knew their ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but it was the Port Hills in­ci­dent that re­ally put drones on the map.

Drones have been around for the best part of a decade, firstly ap­pear­ing as toys and then as large com­mer­cially-built film cam­era plat­forms that cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars.

David says: “We first be­came aware that drones were go­ing to be an im­por­tant part of our busi­ness – and that of forestry – around 2010, when we saw them mov­ing away from be­com­ing a model-builder’s toy to be­ing a highly func­tional tool.

“But it wasn’t un­til 2015 that we saw tech­nol­ogy had caught up with the in­dus­try’s ex­pec­ta­tions of what they could do, to the ex­tent you could give one of these de­vices to an em­ployee and they could use it as part of their ev­ery­day work.

“Our in­ter­est was around how we could see the for­est for the sake of the trees. As foresters it’s very hard to get a han­dle on op­er­a­tions where our trees are of­ten cloak­ing our roads and are 40 me­tres high. Be­fore, the only way was to get up and ap­pre­ci­ate the view was from a he­li­copter, which was an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise.

“There is a huge amount of ben­e­fit in just be­ing able to look over the back of that ridge or look down that gully and the drones were be­com­ing au­to­mated enough and much more cost-ef­fec­tive to al­low us to do that – it was like the iPhone ef­fect and the Fire Ser­vice got that con­cept, es­pe­cially af­ter Port Hills. They were look­ing at in­dus­trial drones cost­ing sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars and then, af­ter they tri­alled one of these small units, they sud­denly re­alised that these were more func­tional than the ex­pen­sive ones.”

In the first in­stance, like most other for­est man­age­ment com­pa­nies in New Zealand, In­ter­pine ini­tially saw drones as just an

in­stru­ment to pro­vide an eye-in-the-sky.

But very soon the de­vel­op­ment of soft­ware and third-party ap­pli­ca­tions, such as GIS map­ping, be­gan to match the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the UAVs them­selves, which saw the use of drones ex­tend to aerial pho­togram­me­try.

“We pur­chased our first one in mid2015 and by the end of that year we could see a path­way to much wider adop­tion, pro­gress­ing to the point where we re­ally started to make use of them for aerial map­ping, rather than just an eye-in-thesky,” says David.

In­evitably, ev­ery­one thought that drones would be able to take on much more so­phis­ti­cated aerial work, even though the tech­nol­ogy was still de­vel­op­ing and is still not quite ready for some of those tasks. David calls it the ‘Elon Musk ef­fect’, draw­ing par­al­lels with fully au­tonomous cars.

“Re­mote sens­ing is a bit like that,” he says, “peo­ple think that be­cause you can fly a drone there and find all the cut-over waste and clas­sify it you can come up with just a num­ber at the end. It’s not that easy, we still have some way to go be­fore it’s at that level.”

One is­sue is that most drones can still only spend less than half an hour in the sky on one bat­tery charge, which lim­its how far they can fly. Bat­tery de­vel­op­ment is pro­gress­ing, but it will be some time be­fore a drone can stay in the air for an hour, or even­tu­ally up to three hours.

An­other re­stric­tion is that cur­rent CAA rules only al­low drones to fly within line of sight with­out spe­cial per­mis­sion and not ‘over the hori­zon’. This rule is be­ing re­viewed and may be re­laxed for spe­cific drones and in cer­tain ar­eas at some point in the fu­ture.

Make no mis­take, there are ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for drones to be more widely used in the fu­ture, but David Her­ries be­lieves there are enough things we can do with them now.

“Let’s con­cen­trate on em­pow­er­ing peo­ple with these as tools,” he says. “So for con­trac­tors, they can in­spect their equip­ment in safety, go and have a look over the shoul­der of the young faller who’s just started in the crew and be able to do that within two tree lengths. Check on how a har­vester op­er­a­tor is do­ing down a long steep gully with­out spend­ing an hour get­ting down there and back. All with a rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive drone.

“Har­vest su­per­vi­sors can be check­ing on sed­i­ment in the rivers and pro­gram­ming the drone to fly down to a way point and grab the same photo ev­ery Fri­day through­out the whole har­vest and hav­ing that as part of the re­source con­sent ev­i­dence.

“You can see with the re­cent events in Gis­borne how that would ben­e­fit. Imag­ine if the con­trac­tors were tak­ing a time-lapse from the same point ev­ery week to show how they were do­ing it and how use­ful that would be. The crew boss can then see what’s over there and what the prob­lems are and what’s been left and if no one has no­ticed it, he can then get the crew onto it and make sure it’s fixed while still re­main­ing on site.”

David says the use­ful­ness of these ideas were un­der­lined while he was at a log­ging site un­der­tak­ing aerial map­ping and the fore­man ap­proached him and said ‘look I was just about to shoot up the hill and check on our feller/buncher in some windthrow over the back and I wanted to see how he’s get­ting on and if there are any prob­lems (there was no ra­dio cov­er­age) so it’s go­ing to take me an hour to walk up there and talk to him on the ra­dio for 20 min­utes and then walk back down’.

David says: “So we flew over there and watched him for 20 min­utes and flew back, all done with a two or three-minute flight time up the hill, and he was like ‘where do I get one of these?’

“That quickly high­lighted the ben­e­fit of an eye-in-the-sky – you can get a to­tally dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive of the lay of the land and keep your­self out of dan­ger, too.

“Da­mon Wise, down at Pan Pac, said to me one time that if we could get one of these into ev­ery har­vest crew it would be so help­ful. They’ve got some re­ally com­pli­cated haul­ing chutes in terms of risk and hazard, and there’s value in be­ing able to get a view of the chute and show the crew what it looks like from dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the ipad in the con­tainer in the morn­ing to dis­cuss how they can get around the is­sues. They have done some tri­als and it’s in their bud­get to put peo­ple on our train­ing course to get them up­skilled in drone use.”

David and his team at In­ter­pine could see the de­mand for this type of train­ing

ser­vice around the time they pur­chased their first drones. Af­ter at­tend­ing just the sec­ond drone course run by Massey Univer­sity, David ap­proached them with a joint ven­ture pro­posal and In­ter­pine ran its first train­ing course in Oc­to­ber 2016.

Massey still runs its own course for all users, but the In­ter­pine one is tai­lored specif­i­cally to forestry and al­lied in­dus­tries with in­struc­tors qual­i­fied to CAA Part 102. Massey has now run more than 80 of its cour­ses, with In­ter­pine al­ready up to course num­ber 8.

“We wanted to en­sure that we as an in­dus­try not only took ad­van­tage of the mas­sive ben­e­fits that these tools can pro­vide, but to do it in a re­spon­si­ble man­ner and en­sure we didn’t make the front page of the news­pa­per for the wrong rea­sons,” says David.

Each course takes up to 14 peo­ple at a time and in ad­di­tion to work­ing with Massey Univer­sity, In­ter­pine has struck up a busi­ness re­la­tion­ship with drone man­u­fac­turer DJI In­dus­tries and David has vis­ited their fac­to­ries and dis­cussed what tech­nolo­gies are on the hori­zon. This re­la­tion­ship has also en­abled In­ter­pine to be in a po­si­tion to pro­vide drone kits for any of those at­tend­ing its cour­ses.

So what does the fu­ture of drone use look like?

“I think you will see the con­tin­u­a­tion of drones around the size of the Phan­tom be­come far more func­tional through their soft­ware and ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” says David. “Hav­ing zoom cam­eras on a small drone will be among them, en­abling bet­ter vis­ual use.

“We will see them be­come more rugged – we are see­ing that now with the ad­vent of the IP43-rat­ing for weather-proof drones. You will see them look af­ter them­selves in airspace – you may not have to do this course in fu­ture be­cause drones will have a transpon­der/re­ceiver, just like manned air­craft that will have them as manda­tory from 2021, and they will be able to talk to each other.”

And we’ll see big­ger drones evolve that can un­der­take more ad­vanced roles than just be­ing an eye-in-the-sky or be­ing used in map­ping. This is al­ready hap­pen­ing, with drones that can now be bought off-the-shelf equipped with spray­ing units for tack­ling weeds or wild­ing trees in dif­fi­cult lo­ca­tions.

These ma­chines can lift a pay­load weigh­ing up to 10kg and they also have larger bat­ter­ies that pro­vide more than 30 min­utes of flight time. But David doesn’t see spray­ing drones be­com­ing any larger be­cause of weight re­stric­tions – to re­main classed as a drone they must still keep un­der the 25kg limit, in­clud­ing pay­load.

But it’s other ap­pli­ca­tions that are now start­ing to show the true ver­sa­til­ity of the drone, such as fly­ing out straw­lines on dif­fi­cult ter­rain and fer­ry­ing seedlings to silvi work­ers on hill­sides. Tri­als of both ap­pli­ca­tions are al­ready un­der way.

He­li­copters have been used to run out straw­lines on some long and dif­fi­cult set­tings in the past but it’s an ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise, es­pe­cially for yarders work­ing in re­mote

lo­ca­tions. But it is only in re­cent times that ‘af­ford­able’ drones have be­come ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing the weight of a straw­line – a syn­thetic rope line, not wire, of course.

In­ter­pine isn’t the first to ex­per­i­ment with run­ning straw­lines us­ing a drone. That wily Otago log­ger, Bill Win­mill, has been tri­alling a va­ri­ety of drones in his crew and re­cently in­vested in a larger model that is more ca­pa­ble of tak­ing the weight. It’s still a work in progress.

But the In­ter­pine team has now re­fined the idea through the de­vel­op­ment of a re­mote­ly­con­trolled de­tach­ing sys­tem that en­ables the rope to be re­leased by the drone op­er­a­tor.

Fit­ted to a 6-ro­tor DJI M600 Pro drone that is ca­pa­ble of lift­ing 6.5kg pay­loads, the In­ter­pine team demon­strated the straw­line-lift­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties to NZ Log­ger while we were at the re­cent UAV train­ing course.

The re­lease mech­a­nism is fit­ted to a long, weighted line so that the straw­line does not be­come tan­gled in the craft’s ro­tor blades.

It can be de­ployed with ei­ther 6mm or 100mm Dyneema syn­thetic rope and the short demo proved that ei­ther op­tion can be lifted eas­ily and flown out sig­nif­i­cant dis­tances.

A sub­se­quent trial car­ried out for the ben­e­fit of some lo­cal Ro­torua for­est man­agers and con­trac­tors fur­ther tested the lim­its of its ca­pa­bil­i­ties.

“We could fly a 10mm syn­thetic rope out to around 250 me­tres suc­cess­fully and if you wanted to go fur­ther, say 400 me­tres or more, you’d prob­a­bly drop down to the 6mm rope,” says David. “For longer set­tings, there is no rea­son why you couldn’t fly it out in stages.”

Fur­ther tri­als are be­ing car­ried out and it is ex­pected some crews in the Kain­garoa For­est will be us­ing drones to run their straw­lines soon. NZ Log­ger will be keep­ing an eye on this de­vel­op­ment.

“There are many ben­e­fits,” says David. “This method ob­vi­ously saves time, but you’ve also got to look at the health & safety as­pects – re­mov­ing peo­ple from a po­ten­tially haz­ardous task is prob­a­bly one of the key driv­ers for em­ploy­ing a drone to run straw­lines.”

The de­vel­op­ment of the re­motely-con­trolled de­tach­ing sys­tem also led the In­ter­pine team to look at us­ing drones for the de­liv­ery of Ra­di­ata Pine seedlings to sil­vi­cul­ture work­ers on steep and dif­fi­cult coun­try. Any­one who has been in­volved in this sort of work knows how chal­leng­ing it can be to re-sup­ply work­ers with trees as they plant dif­fi­cult-to-ac­cess blocks. Re-sup­ply­ing by air seemed like the an­swer.

Orig­i­nally the idea was to fly boxes of seedlings to work­ers on the hill, but it was de­cided that the trees could be more eas­ily trans­ported when wrapped in a small sling equipped with eye­lets for at­tach­ing to the elec­tronic hook, and it would also elim­i­nate the weight of the box.

NZ Log­ger was on hand for the very first trial of this sys­tem, in a small plant­ing block just to the south-west of Ro­torua city.

The 35-hectare site is owned by a Maori trust and un­til now it was a steep, gors­es­trewn waste­land. Un­der In­ter­pine’s di­rec­tion, the gorse was cut and the block has now been planted with Ra­di­ata Pines to pro­vide the trust with fu­ture in­come from a site that was pre­vi­ously un­used.

The task of plant­ing the pines was un­der­taken by Whakatane-based Scholtens Con­trac­tors and had to be planned for a week when no rain was forecast, as the M600 Pro drone is not a water­proof model.

The silvi crew were a lit­tle be­mused with the sight of drones be­ing set up as they car­ried their first boxes up the hill to be­gin plant­ing.

Nor­mally, one of their team would be as­signed to the duty of ‘don­key’ to ferry full boxes up the hill for his col­leagues and take down the emp­ties – not a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant task when four boxes on a back­pack frame can weigh as much as 60kg. To­day, the drone would do the don­key work.

Af­ter the drone was set up and a take-off / land­ing site pre­pared, David and I climbed the hill to watch and record the ac­tion.

Be­ing a foggy morn­ing there were un­likely to be low fly­ing manned air­craft or he­li­copters in the area, but chief UAV pi­lot, Chris Scog­gins, had sub­mit­ted a NOTAM (aka a no­ti­fi­ca­tion) to the CAA-run web­site, con­tacted the Ro­torua air­port con­trol tower to ad­vise where the drone would be used that morn­ing and at what height (un­der 40 me­tres, which is the nor­mal limit for a UAV) and also got per­mis­sion from the land owner – all re­quire­ments for fly­ing drones out in the open (there are ex­cep­tions to these rules, but you’d best do the Part 101 RPAS course to un­der­stand them).

At first, David called in the drone and its cargo of seedlings slung un­der­neath in the tarp as each of the planters needed to be re-supplied. But each group was pro­vided with a ra­dio and given the op­por­tu­nity to call in their own sup­plies and soon there was a reg­u­lar shut­tle go­ing up and down the hill, tak­ing no more than a cou­ple of min­utes, in­stead of 15 min­utes or more on foot. The ser­vice is so ac­cu­rate, the bun­dles of seedlings are be­ing dropped straight into the arms of wait­ing planters on the ground.

By smoko, all the planters were en­thu­si­as­tic con­verts to the use of the ‘drone don­key’ and silvi crew boss, Rod­ney Scholtens, was beam­ing at the thought of how this could trans­form his op­er­a­tion.

“It’s amaz­ing, eh,” says Rod­ney. “I never thought I’d see any­thing like this in my life­time.

“It would save on us­ing a ‘don­key’ and it’s much bet­ter for the boys to be supplied reg­u­larly than to carry full loads all the time. They can even have their food and wa­ter flown up.”

David agrees, adding: “This way we are not ask­ing planters to op­er­ate on 45-de­gree slopes with a big weight hang­ing off them – they can carry fewer trees at any one time and smaller drink con­tain­ers. It has to be safer.

“There are plenty of slip and fall in­ci­dents be­ing recorded by planters and by us­ing a drone I’m sure those in­stances can be re­duced.”

David also thinks drones can make a use­ful con­tri­bu­tion in the plan­ning of plant­ing sites, by tak­ing LiDAR record­ings of the to­pog­ra­phy and iden­ti­fy­ing risk ar­eas for those on the ground to be aware of.

But the $18,000-to-$22,000 cost of a new water­proof drone that can op­er­ate in all con­di­tions might be a bar­rier to some sil­vi­cu­ture con­trac­tors who are think­ing about pur­chas­ing one, plus the ad­di­tional costs to train up one or two (or more) mem­bers of the crew to op­er­ate it.

David says for­est own­ers / man­agers will need to work with their sil­vi­cul­ture con­trac­tors to help fa­cil­i­tate the in­tro­duc­tion of this new tech­nol­ogy, just as they are do­ing with the in­tro­duc­tion of new in­no­va­tions to har­vest­ing crews, such as winch-as­sist sys­tems.

With the plant­ing sea­son only tak­ing up five months of the year at the most, is it worth­while own­ing that sort of tech­nol­ogy or would it be bet­ter to lease it or con­tract out the drone ser­vice to a third party?

These are ques­tions that will need to be dis­cussed by the forestry com­pa­nies and their con­trac­tors.

What is clear al­ready, is that drone use within the forestry sec­tor will con­tinue to grow in fu­ture years as more peo­ple adopt the tech­nol­ogy and new uses are dis­cov­ered.

David Her­ries says the next gen­er­a­tion foresters will grow up with drones in the same way to­day’s gen­er­a­tion has with chain­saws.

In­ter­pine is al­ready talk­ing to Toi Ohomai about in­clud­ing learn­ing units on drone tech­nol­ogy as part of its teach­ing cur­ricu­lum. That means stu­dents grad­u­at­ing from Toi Ohomai forestry cour­ses will al­ready have Part 101 RPAS qual­i­fi­ca­tions, which will make them more valu­able as em­ploy­ees for both forestry com­pa­nies and con­trac­tors.

It’s the way of the fu­ture. And it’s here now.

NZL

Above: Test­ing the de­ploy­ment of a syn­thetic straw­line us­ing a drone.Be­low left: In­ter­pine Gen­eral Man­ager, David Her­ries, with the re­motely-con­trolled de­tach­ing sys­tem used in run­ning syn­thetic straw­line ropes and fer­ry­ing seedlings by drone.Be­low: Suc­cess­ful test over, In­ter­pine’s David Heries (right) and Steve Has­nip, with the drone and Dyneema straw­line.

Top: In­ter­pine’s Chris Scog­gins fas­tens the sling con­tain­ing around 70 Ra­di­ata Pine seedlings to the hitch­ing line.

Two in the mid­dle: A sling full of seedlings ready to be de­liv­ered to the silvi planters. Drone is hitched up to the seedlings – plenty of boxes in the back­ground for re­sup­ply­ing

Be­low: Lift off! Chris Scrog­gins sends the drone off on its first de­liv­ery.

David Kerr uses the ra­dio to di­rect the drone pi­lot.

Scholtens Con­trac­tors boss, Rod­ney Scoltens (fore­ground) never thought he’d see seedlings flown in by drone.

The 6-ro­tor DJI M600 Pro drone is ca­pa­ble of lift­ing 6.5kg pay­loads.

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