Deep Forest: Drones and Advanced Technology Improve the Study of Tropical Forests

  • For the first time, a fixed-wing drone will use a high-definition laser scanner and multispectral camera.

  • This tool has great potential for scientific study, management policymaking, conservation, as well as forest and plantation monitoring.

September 2018. The Deep Forest Project unites science and technology to quantify as never before tropical forest carbon sequestration, biomass, and health. Knowing how much atmospheric CO2 could be sequestered in our forests and thus reduce the greenhouse gas effect bestows greater economic value on these forests.

The companies Intel Costa Rica, Aerial Robotixs, and the Foundation for the Development of the Central Volcanic Range (FUNDECOR) today presented an ambitious project to quantify at scale and at a fraction of current cost, tropical forest carbon sequestration, biomass, and health. Deep Forest combines long-distance drones with Intel data processing technology and a solid scientific understanding of key indicators for the health of forests and of the planet.

The Technology

For the first time, a fixed-wing drone will use a sophisticated direct measurement system that includes a high-definition laser scanner (LiDAR HD), multispectral camera, instruments that create a three-dimensional model of the forest surface, canopy coverage, and relevant information about tree health, height, biomass, quantity, among other parameters.

“Drone-mounted LiDAR HD technology can generate a georeferenced point cloud usable to construct a three-dimensional model of the forest. LiDAR HD is the only scientific instrument that can penetrate the forest canopy and measure all forest strata all the way down to the soil,” explains Nelson Mattie, co-founder and CEO of Aerial Robotixs.

The potential use of this tool is enormous. “Generating such robust data at scale and with an acceptable level of precision could have profound implications for scientific study, management policymaking, conservation, and forest and plantation monitoring, among other uses,” emphasizes Felipe Carazo, FUNDECOR’s executive director.

“The work between Aerial Robotixs and FUNDECOR to install Intel technology on a fixed-wing drone with a sophisticated measurement system could have global impact. It is very important for us and is an example of the kind of alliances that we at Intel Costa Rica are developing to promote innovative and highly relevant projects that could contribute to the resolution of global problems,” said Timothy Scott, manager of government affairs and public relations at Intel Costa Rica.

Innovation: Key Element in Deep Forest

The project offers several outstanding innovations. It is the first time that LiDAR HD has been deployed in tropical forests via a drone in order to estimate carbon stock. To operate this kind of system in remote areas, in high air traffic areas, and with complex topography all present considerable challenges. Similarly, data processing requires the development of software and allometric equations that convert the LiDAR HD point cloud into biomass and carbon stock estimates.

The final product of this effort is quality, robust, reliable, and auditable data useful for making operational, administrative, and strategic decisions. Aside from being an ideal instrument for tracking carbon transactions, this information has many uses.

The combination of an unmanned airborne system with great flight distance and time and a LiDAR HD, along with forest ecology understanding makes this an innovative example and a vision for the future.

Three Companies Make Deep Forest Possible

Aerial Robotixs, specialized in R&D and the assembly of unmanned, fixed-wing airborne systems, sensor integration with LiDAR HD and multispectral cameras

Intel, leading multinational corporation in the global market for microprocessors whose Innovation Center joins this project

Fundecor, a non-profit with two decades of experience in forest measurements, forest ecosystem management, and sustainable forestry

The Next Level

The calculation of biomass and more recently carbon sequestration has been done with different methodologies. At first, such measure occurred in situ in the forest. Recently, indirect measures with optical-electronic sensors that take measurements at the canopy have come online. LiDAR HD deployed in unmanned vehicles that interpret data with resources designed specifically for tropical forest, without a doubt, constitutes the next level.

The Power of LiDAR HD Data

This information is of enormous value for the following applications:

  • Carbon stock measurements in countries with emerging and established carbon markets

  • Measurement of carbon stock in a particular kind of tropical forest

  • Technical input for private investment and corporate responsibility carbon sequestration projects

  • Technical support in the monitoring of large-scale carbon and reforestation projects

  • Understanding forest health, structure, and evolution of its biophysical characteristics

  • Sustainable forest management: By making precise measurements at lower cost that field-based research reduces time needed to inventory forest resources which converts to lower costs to estimate total and commercial volume. By estimating tree height, it is possible to determine with greater precision commercial timber volumes which with current methodologies is difficult and very costly.

  • With higher precision, lower measurement costs of volume, biomass, and stored carbon, costs to monitor human impacts such as forest degradation and deforestation in turn also drop.

These applications demonstrate the high value of these data for making forestry investment and harvesting decisions.

Principal Challenge

The project’s need for significant innovation encountered several formidable challenges for partners to resolve.

  • Integration of LiDAR HD in an unmanned airborne system

  • Development of allometric equations to calculate biomass and carbon stock

  • Design of a methodology to ground truth LiDAR HD data with terrestrial monitoring plots

  • 3D modeling, biomass and carbon stock estimates for three tropical forest types: primary, secondary, and monocultural plantations

This project has become a milestone and high-end tool for obtaining precise, scientifically valuable data thanks to a partnership to protect tropical forests around the world.

#LaboratorioVivo #FUNDECOR #CostaRica #BreathingLab #development #technology

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