F&W Utilizing Drones in Forest Management

F&W Utilizes Drones To Provide Landowners With Innovative, Cost Effective Ways To Manage Their Forests

By Stephen Logan, Manager, F&W’s Forest Inventory GroupDCIM100MEDIADJI_0355.JPG

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently implemented new regulations for the commercial operation of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), commonly referred to as drones. With these changes, F&W is poised to become a leader in forestry aerial imagery acquisition and analysis. From geo-referenced imagery to 3D models of the forest, the sky is the limit. Forestry projects that previously required expensive manned aircraft and clear weather can now be accomplished in a cost effective and timely manner.

Prior to August 29, 2016, the FAA mandated that any company looking to use UAS for any purpose deemed as furthering a business had to obtain a special exemption. That exemption approval process was burdensome, costly, and time consuming. The new FAA regulations create a drone certification process for low-risk commercial UAS flights and individuals can become certified to operate UAS aircraft by meeting certain conditions, including:

  • Passing an initial aeronautical test and retesting every two years;
  • Passing a background check by the Transportation Security Administration;
  • Be at least 16 years old;
  • Make the UAS and any required documentation available for inspection by the FAA; and
  • Report any accident that results in injury or property damage greater than $500 to the FAA within 10 days.

Technology researchers at F&W have been preparing for the new rules for several years by testing and flying drones under a recreational status. They have also been working with peers in Uruguay to take advantage of the new technology. This has allowed F&W to vet hardware and software to best meet the needs of the forest landowner as well as develop innovative ways to use the technology.

From the simplest standpoint, the UAS allows the user to capture up-to-date aerial imagery for mapping purposes. A major benefit to the landowner is harvested acres can be calculated in an efficient manner. Previously a forester would traverse the boundary with a GPS unit and provide the results to a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technician to clean and incorporate into client maps. This was a time consuming, expensive, and sometimes dangerous process.

When using the UAS, the forester simply finds an open area to launch the UAS, plans the flight using specialized software, and monitors the UAS to ensure it safely completes its assigned task. The resulting imagery is provided to GIS analysts to complete the process and create updated maps and information for clients. UAS technology is more efficient and offers significant savings in manpower time when compared to the previous GPS methodology.

Other uses for the UAS captured imagery include property inspection, harvest status checks, weather damage, and herbicide efficacy.

A couple of key applications where F&W has used the UAS for is Southern Pine Beetle inspection and Cogon grass infestation location. Both of these are easily identifiable from the air and extremely important to detect early to prevent spreading.

More in-depth analysis can also be completed with information captured from the UAS. Digital elevation models (DEM) can be created from the point cloud of data generated by the UAS. This provides an elevation for each image pixel and allows analysis of land features such as stream locations, tree heights, and tree canopy gaps. It also enables the GIS analyst to create 3D models of the forest. Imagine being able to view your property in 3D without leaving the home or office.

UAS technology offers landowners new and innovative ways to manage their forests and the opportunities it offers for the future are even more exciting. F&W is currently working on completing plantation survival and young stand inventories based on imagery only. In addition, combining UAS imagery and less intensive traditional sampling methodology can improve the efficiency and accuracy of samples of merchantable forests.

With the easing of restrictions on commercial drone use, F&W is taking advantage of the technology to provide its clients with cutting edge deliverables in a timely and cost efficient manner.

For more information about F&W’s UAS services, contact Stephen Logan at slogan@FWForestry.com or (229) 883.0505, ext. 148.