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How technology is making our forests smarter

Exciting things are happening in Australia and beyond when it comes to the fusion of forestry and technology.

Our forests are becoming smarter, healthier and more productive as a result of ongoing innovation. Here, we provide a wrap-up of some of the recent developments.

Sensors for habitat monitoring

Advanced remote sensing technologies are being used in Tasmania to monitor wedge-tailed eagle nests, with researchers heralding this as a potential early step towards fully networked or digital forests.

The project, funded through the National Institute for Forest Products Innovation (NIFPI), is being led by Dr Dean Williams, Manager at Forest Management Services, Sustainable Timber Tasmania.

The results will be used to improve our understanding of the efficiency of current protocols guiding forest management practices. This knowledge will help determine whether new or adapted approaches could better protect the eagles, and minimise the impact on forestry operations.

The research team’s long-term vision is for technologies to be installed that will continually collect and broadcast real-time data from the forest. This data will be beamed back to forest managers to support better decision-making.

Artificial Intelligence and forestry in regional Australia

Work continues on the Smarter Regions Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) – a collaborative research initiative enabling

communities, universities and government to ensure the benefits of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are maximised in Australia’s regional areas.

FWPA and the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) are working on a joint proposal outlining potential areas of focus for forestry, informed by discussions with growers and timber processors.

The potential to support better decision-making by optimising knowledge and knowledge transfer across the entire supply chain is highlighted as a key priority.

AI techniques are also identified in the proposal as having the possibility to uncover nonlinear relationships between the many factors impacting wood quality such as genetics, site conditions, rotations, management activities and environmental inputs.

As the research team awaits the opening of the call for bids from the Smarter Regions CRC, further work in the AI space has continued, including the testing of technologies for supply chain tracking.

The team also received an Australian Government Citizen Science Grant of almost $500,000, for the design and implementation of an app to help predict the likelihood of bushfire events and minimise their effects. ‘Citizen scientists’ from around the country – including people who hike, work and camp in forest areas – will be encouraged to use the app, and help collect vital data in the form of photos and forest fuel samples.

Drones, planes and satellites

For many years, Dr Christine Stone of the NSW Department of Primary Industries has led research projects around the use of remote platforms equipped with various types of sensors to capture high resolution data that will aid plantation forest management.

A new FWPA-funded collaborative proof-of-concept project will focus on characterising the complex structure of Australia’s native forests for the first time. The team will investigate methods that can link data captured on-the-ground via terrestrial mobile laser scanning, as well as via airborne laser scanners attached to planes, and even the GEDI sensor on board the International Space Station!

This structural information has the potential to be used to inform areas of native forest operation including the monitoring of changes in stand structure, species habitat modelling, stand and tree-level inventory, and fuel load modelling for the prediction of bushfire behavior, suppression planning, recovery and regeneration.

Driverless vehicles for timber harvesting

While advanced robotic systems are already commonplace in controlled workspaces such as factories, the use of remote controlled or autonomous machinery in more complex environments such as the forest is still in its infancy.

As far back as 2017, FWPA commissioned a study entitled, ‘Next Generation Timber Harvesting Systems: Opportunities for remote controlled and autonomous machinery’.

Led by Associate Professor Rien Visser, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, the project was developed to help facilitate the opportunity for developing next-generation harvesting systems, and provided a comprehensive review of opportunities within current harvesting practices for either remote or autonomous control.

While there is a plethora of ideas, there are no fully autonomous systems currently used for timber harvesting in Australia or New Zealand. However, the extraction and subsequent transportation of stems and logs with GPS-guided systems was found to be the area of operations most likely to first become ‘robotic’, with the potential to be achieved in the near future with only modest R&D investment.

Beyond that, with improved visual recognition software, partial automation could be of benefit for tasks such as stem processing. In the longer-term, and with a more substantial R&D investment, robotic felling within a plantation environment could also become economically feasible.

You can review the findings of the study in full by clicking here.

Make sure to read the upcoming edition of R&DWorks, where we will delve further into a number of these innovations and more.

Posted Date: June 22, 2021

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