Drones reveal potential for precision forestry

By Luke Geiver | May 24, 2017

The open-air expanses above agriculture fields aren’t the only places for precision drone work. A Seattle-based startup and a timber giant from Finland are now working to bring precision drone applications to the trees.

By becoming the first ever company to earn a U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Part 107 multi-vehicle waiver along with a 137 exemption to spray agricultural substances, DroneSeed has become a drone firm capable of providing precision forestry services that include tree spraying, tree seeding and growth monitoring.

According to DroneSeed, although forest restoration is a $62 billion industry, tree-planting techniques have not changed in a century. Typically, a crew is hired to manually plant seeds, often in difficult terrain. “The only reason forestry didn’t automate sooner was the terrain and precision required. Drones are the obvious technology to overcome terrain issues with flight,” said Grant Canary, CEO of DroneSeed. The company is currently spraying for competitive vegetation but it soon will move into the restoration of wildfire-affected areas. The company has signed service contracts with several large timber companies along with a watershed restoration project.

In Finland, the major timber company Metsa Group is also looking to drones to help manage its resources. This summer Metsa will test multiple small unmanned aircraft vehicles in an effort to streamline its forest management practice.

The company will deploy a range of sensor packages all in an effort to verify the health of large timber blocks and each individual tree. The goal with each tree is to understand when or why it might be harvested. If a drone can detect damage, the wood can be harvested before it is ruined and of no use for pulp.

Testing for the forest management systems occurred in winter last year as well. After testing commences this summer, Metsa believes it will have a way to generate video, a full forest survey and a 3-D rendering that can be used as a virtual management plan.