March 24, 2021 at 9:57 am | Updated February 28, 2023 at 9:26 pm | 7 min read
Precision forestry uses advanced data collection and analysis systems to allow site-specific management of forests. This new approach to forestry is being used to replace the traditional system that has remained unchanged for nearly three centuries. It is relevant for managing monoculture plantations and semi-natural forests for producing goods, such as wood and biomass production, and for forest conservation. Precision forestry can solve new challenges, like increased forest fires and logging and decreasing availability of skilled labor. As a scalable technology, it is being used by private individuals, organizations, and national governments.
[Updated: March 2023]
What is Precision Forestry?
Precision management, successfully used in agriculture, is also being advocated for forests.
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Precision forestry uses tools and technology to collect data analyzed by artificial intelligence and machine learning software to provide insights, which people then use to make decisions for site-specific management. It aims to improve wood quality, decrease illegal logging and deforestation, reduce waste, and increase profits.
It can be used in all phases of forestry, such as planning, site operations, monitoring, processing, and marketing.
Precision forestry takes advantage of the deep understanding of ecological processes in forests accumulated throughout recent decades. Instead of following a single plan for the entire area, accurate data and advanced analytics can optimize and fine-tune management decisions to suit site conditions, such as soil type and fertility, slope, etc. This can ensure the following:
- Species selection and planting based on site characteristics improve the survival of seedlings.
- Monitoring seedling establishment success and improving stock levels for thinning zones in forests.
- Monitoring the health of trees through timely detection of stress due to pests, diseases, and drought.
- Variable rate application of nutrient supplements, herbicides, and pesticides, based on site-specific needs and guided by GPS.
- Plan and execute efficient watering based on management zones to save water.
- Site operations automation where the availability of skilled labor is low. Though automation will not be necessary where operations can be sustainably handled manually.
- Valuation of forests and tracking of wood during transport.
- Combination of spatial data on tree growth, lumber potential, and environmental conditions to create growth and yield models for future management.
Advantages of Precision Forestry
Demand for wood products is increasing. On the other hand, it is also evident that the remaining forests must be protected to maintain our quality of life—the very air we breathe depends on them.
Efficient and intensive forest management is becoming increasingly important as it is not possible in most countries to increase the area under forests or plantations. Precision forestry offers a way of decreasing costs and increasing production.
Precision forestry has the following economic benefits:
- Overall cost savings of up to 47%.
- Variable-rate application has reduced chemical use for herbicides and fertilizers by two-thirds compared to traditional methods.
- Mapping technology has become cheaper and more widely available.
- Rapid and frequent reporting provides easy access to analyzed digital data.
- Digital analysis and reporting reduce errors during the manual valuation of forests.
- Using remote-sensed imagery makes the evaluation of forests cheaper and faster.
- Reduce illegal logging and damage levels by digital scouting of tree-cover change.
- Monitoring forests with drones or satellites gives early warning of fires ahead of direct observations, enabling quicker action (See Figure 1).
Other benefits of precision forestry include a reduction in –
- illegal logging,
- costs of forest management,
- forest fires, and
- costs of forest mapping.
Who Can Use Precision Forestry?
Precision management is important for both economic and ecological reasons.
The industries that can benefit from precision forestry deal in wood and biomass products, such as pulp and paper, timber for furniture and houses, and wood as an energy source for cooking and heating. Stakeholders in the wood supply chain who can benefit from precision forestry are
- raw material suppliers,
- equipment suppliers,
- market players and traders,
- and end users.
As shown in Figure 2, these industries are using data from precision forestry to gain inventory and logistics management insights, such as the following:
- Valuation of the lumber potential of forests in terms of wood volume and number, straightness, and diameter of logs.
- Locate the exact areas to streamline logging operations and save time.
- Track transportation of logs.
Some other equally important uses of precision forestry are to protect the environment and maintain ecosystem services from forests. This has become more important due to the increasing amount of forest fires caused by climate change. So, public and private organizations involved in natural forest conservations are also interested in this new forestry method for –
- carbon sequestration,
- carbon accounting,
- watershed development,
- soil conservation,
- forest preservation, and
- biodiversity conservation.
Instruments and Technology used in Precision Forestry
Many but not all of the technologies used in precision forestry are associated with remote sensing, geographic information systems (GIS), and global positioning systems (GPS).
- Remote sensing through satellite imagery relies on spectral images to give large-scale information on forest composition, forest health, drought conditions, or fire and flood risks.
- Drones or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) can fly guided remotely by people. They are used to scan the area under the canopy of plantations without GPS navigation or automated operations. They have an efficient obstacle avoidance controller to handle under-story vegetation. Drones are used on the site level to
- map specific sites,
- detect fires or flood risks,
- scan burned areas for damages,
- operate other technology like LiDAr technology or multispectral cameras,
- disperse seeds, and
- apply herbicides and pesticides.
- Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) is a remote sensing technique that uses near infra-red laser and GPS to map land and forest precisely. LiDAR can be used for large-scale maps with planes/drones or small-scale scans when installed on the ground. LiDar is useful for generating the following information:
- Vertical forest structure
- Tree data such as the shape of trees, the density of leaves, etc
- Detecting forest under-story vegetation like shrubs
- Forest Inventory of tree height, basal area, and volume
- Post-harvest surveys
- Detecting above-ground and underground diseases. For example, it can detect root rot—one of the main causes of loss in wood production (See Figure 1).
- Sensors collect field data about soil or individual plants to give site-specific information to help in variable rate applications. These are small and portable tools that give accurate information. Many have GPS to monitor growth over long periods and WiFi for easy data transfer. Some examples are
- Soil sensors to detect soil temperature and water level.
- Canopy Imagers to monitor tree growth and health, soil erosion, and carbon fixation for carbon accounting. An example of one such device is the CI-110 Plant Canopy Imager.
- Spectrometers that identify plants under stress and suffering from drought. They can also measure chlorophyll levels that can be used with vegetative indices to estimate biomass. An example is the CI-710s SpectraVue Leaf Spectrometer.
- Leaf area meters to measure tree yields, such as the CI-202 Portable Laser Leaf Area Meter and the CI-203 Portable Laser Leaf Area Meter.
- Portable minirhizotrons can be used with pre-installed root tubes to track root growth and detect root pests and pathogens. Examples are the CI-600 In-Situ Root Imager and the CI-602 Narrow Gauge Root Imager.
- Big Data is used to accumulating information from remote sensing and field observations. The amount of ecosystem data scientists have at present provides a sound basis to evaluate ecosystem services that society derives from forests. Having baseline data is also helpful in monitoring the future changes in forests that will occur due to human activity or through events related to climate change. Big Data is also built based on long-term field experiments by scientists. The aim is to identify the various factors that interact, such as temperature, wind, growth stages, seasons, site conditions, etc., to improve the predictive powers of models used to analyze future data to provide better and more accurate insights.
Precision Forestry Technology is Available
The application of precision forestry may have just begun, but it has already seen wide adoption. According to Bloomberg, it is estimated to be worth USD 3.9 billion in 2019 and is expected to see an annual growth of 9% by 2024.
The number of companies that provide technology relevant to precision forestry is also increasing.
However, some companies, such as CID Bio-Science, have been making precision tools for plant research for decades, long before the term precision forestry was coined. They have the advantage of many years of experience and real-world application, allowing them to apply technology throughout forestry systems seamlessly.
Precision Forestry is Profitable
Precision forestry has been tried and tested. Some of its technology, like the variable rate application of chemicals, has been adopted from precision agriculture. Other aspects, like remote sensing, have also been used for decades. These various techniques continue to be combined by further technological advancements, allowing even greater adoption throughout the industry. Whether applied in conservation or product delivery, precision forestry is a revolution in intensive management.
Science Writer, CID Bio-Science
Ph.D. Ecology and Environmental Science, B.Sc Agriculture
Feature image courtesy of Steven Kamenar
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