While drones are often associated with government and military, several industries recognise the benefits of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology and are turning to drones for a competitive advantage. Thus, since the summer of 2014 a team of
FPInnovations researchers has been conducting tests across Canada to study the potential uses of drones and validate those applications in the forest sector.

During flights, drones have the capability to take thousands of still photos or live stream videos – in natural colour, multi-spectral mode as well as thermal infrared (IR).  The still images can be assembled into 3D models – to identify tree species and estimate size and position of trees down to a few centimetres. The combination of aerial and 3D imaging is likely to make it easier to determine the status of a stand following an insect outbreak and the distribution of species.

FPInnovations’ team is currently testing if this wealth of information from drones may facilitate companies to better plan harvesting and determine the better use of trees. There are several potential applications in the forest sector and the ongoing tests aim to look at the drones’ potential impact in planning forest roads, evaluating the safety of field operations, assessments of treatments, inspections prior to the application of phytocides, and observations of special environmental characteristics and biodiversity. Research is also being conducted to determine if the use of drones can help companies look after their environmental obligations through visual inspections for compliance monitoring and control purposes. FPInnovations’ researchers are validating if drones could also play a role in determining the distribution and success of forest regeneration, soil disturbances and trail occupancy rates, confirm the contours of logged areas, locate silvicultural treatments, and compile forest use inventories. Simply put, FPInnovations’ research is looking if drones may have the potential to help the industry monitor small extents of forests much faster, safer and cheaper, compared to the current methods of using aircraft and helicopters, to help with the operational planning.

Although UAVs are slowly but surely entering the commercial and research sectors, it is still necessary to review some aspects of regulations concerning commercial use of drones. FPInnovations’ work will continue on other validation projects this year, including studying the benefit-to-cost ratio of drone use, regulations and technical aspects.