It used to be to figure out what was going on in B.C.’s forests, foresters had the choice of walking into them and looking up from the ground, or hopping into a helicopter or airplane and looking down from high in the air.

Enter unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones. Now foresters can get a view right at treetop level.

“You’re not very high but close to the canopy, so you get much more detail about the forest,” said Nicholas Coops, a forest researcher at the University of B.C. “Individual trees, gaps between trees, nests of birds, very, very detailed information about the understorey — things you wouldn’t get if you were in a plane.”

The immediate payoff is that drone-captured images can give quick bird’s-eye assessments of whether logging in a particular block has gone well or whether replanting after harvesting has gone as planned.

Researchers believe the longer-term benefit will come from marrying these drone-captured images with powerful computer processing to generate high-definition two-dimensional and three-dimensional maps of forests.

It is difficult to estimate the number of drones in commercial use. But over the past three years, the number of applications to Transport Canada for special flight operations certificates more than doubled to 2,300 in 2015 from 949 in 2013.

The certificates are Transport Canada’s method of regulating professional uses, ensuring operators fly drones in compliance with regulations and while avoiding other aircraft.

Drones more typically make the news for the trouble that unregulated amateur operators cause, such as the unauthorized quadcopter spotted inside airspace over a forest fire near Oliver last August that forced the grounding of firefighting aircraft for several hours.

However, drones are increasingly being put to work in commerce and research, capturing stunning aerial shots for promotional videos and film, observing wildlife for biologists, helping police take overhead pictures for accident reconstructions, aiding transportation planners and more. They’ve also been put to use for inspection work, such as checking stability of cliffs after rock slides onto highways and checking power lines for BC Hydro.

In the evolution of drone technology in forestry, B.C. researchers and companies are on the leading edge of turning drone-captured imagery into high-value data for forest management.

“It’s also the timeliness aspect, flying them when we want to, how we want to,” said Coops, the associate dean for research and innovation in UBC’s faculty of forestry, and a Canada research chair in remote sensing.

So far, Coops said, the key use of drones in B.C. forests has been in evaluating the regeneration of recently replanted forests.

“There is a lot of interest in using drones for that, because (they) work to the advantage of observing small things, and to the advantage of (being able to) go and fly every six months,” he said.

He also sees them as an excellent tool for companies to do more detailed inventories of standing timber more cheaply, or to plan logging to avoid poor ground conditions after rainfall or spring run-off.

The convergence of computers, smaller high-quality cameras and improved drones to carry them is opening up this sector of the industry, said Patrick Crawford, co-founder of Vancouver-based Spire Aerobotics.

He started exploring the potential for drones while studying engineering at UBC. He put school on hold about 18 months ago to pursue a business opportunity with partner Mike Wilcox.

Crawford, who originally comes from Kamloops, came by his interest in drones naturally through a long-term passion for flight (he once held a glider pilot’s licence and started work on his qualification for powered flight) and an interest in developing technology.

“I’d argue we’re still in the infancy of drone technology in many ways,” Crawford said.

Spire found its initial niche in using drones to scan wood chip piles at pulp mills, lumber yards, sawmills and wood-pellet plants and provide volume estimates for their inventory work.

Crawford said that is work that is traditionally done using manned aircraft and light sensors. Using drones, however, they can do the flights more cheaply and more frequently. They’ve also applied their data-processing techniques for researchers such as Coops.

Crawford said they’ve developed most of their company’s intellectual property in the forestry sector, refining their capability to fly over forests and collect a great deal of two- and three-dimensional data, and turning that into maps.

“That next level of processing, you have that data — what can you tell a business about it that can benefit them?” Crawford said. “That’s where we want to focus our energy, and it’s an application for business, for government or for any organization trying to sustainably manage the land base.”

It might take more time to develop and incorporate some of the more “analytical” mapping applications, said Denis Cormier, a senior manager at FP Innovations, a key R & D organization in the Canadian forest industry.

First, there’s the matter of making sure provincial forestry regulators accept that the level of detail provided by drone-generated aerial maps meets their standards for reporting.

Cormier said FP Innovations is comparing some of its B.C. drone-mapping results against ground-based surveys, and so far the province is on board with the new technology, “if it can meet their standards.”

“It’s not something you can easily do within a season. It’s something that’s evolving.” he said. “At the research level, it’s a pace that we’re used to, (but) if you’re a service provider that just bought a (drone) that cost you $50,000, you feel like things aren’t moving fast enough.”

Cormier added that while drones can be used more flexibly than manned aircraft, they are so new to the industry that existing work patterns are too set to fit them in.

For instance, forest companies that are used to hiring a helicopter or plane to conduct aerial surveys over a wide area once a year might not see the need to replace that effort with drones, which are limited to flying smaller areas, even if they are capturing more detailed visual information, he said.

For the time being, Cormier said, high-quality drone imagery is also an expensive proposition for forest companies because it costs of about $15 to $25 a hectare to turn drone-captured images into 3D maps.

As operators refine the computing process, “what we’re hoping is that eventually we’ll be able to meet a $5-a-hectare target,” he said.A bigger limitation, however, is Transport Canada’s regulation that operators don’t let drones out of their sight.

“Trees are always going to be in your line of sight,” Cormier said. That makes it hard for drones to cover wide areas of forest, unless operators can get a high viewpoint.

“Until we’re solving the line-of-sight issue, it’s going to be quite difficult to develop (drone operations) on a larger scale,” he said.

But drone operators are confident that permission to fly beyond line of sight is only a matter of time, said David Bird, editor of the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems, a publication of the national association Unmanned Systems Canada.

Bird, a wildlife biologist and professor emeritus at McGill University, said researchers like him are anxious to use drones for covering large areas of landscape using drones. Meanwhile, companies that want to use drones for inspecting transmission lines or large-scale survey work are also pressuring to change the rules.

Unmanned Systems Canada is preparing a position paper for Transport Canada on crafting regulations for beyond-visual-line-of-sight flight.

“It’s going to come,” Bird said.

Transport Canada is planning more formal regulation for drone operations, including clear rules for allowing unlicensed recreational use of drones and a drone licensing and registration system for operators in specified commercial and other drone uses, said Aaron McCrorie, director general of civil aviation.

The growth of the industry means existing regulations “are no longer adequate and we need more prescriptive regulations,” McCrorie said.

Transport Canada proposed new regulations in 2015 and has held meetings across the country to gather comment. McCrorie said his department is reviewing that public comment and refining a set of regulations for Transport Minister Marc Garneau’s consideration.

However, those regulations will be based on line-of-sight operations.

“A number of years down the road, we will look at regulations for beyond visual line of sight,” McCrorie said. “But there’s a lot more work to be done.”

In the meantime, drone use continues to soar.

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation bought two drones last year for a pilot project to get aerial photos for planning work, but they’ve also proved useful in helping geotechnical engineers assess cliff safety after rock slides, said Mike Lorimer, the department’s regional director for the southern Interior.

Lorimer said they typically hire helicopters to do that — at a cost of $1,200 to $1,300 an hour. Replace them with drones a couple of times and “they pay for themselves,” he said.

“It’s helping us with design (work),” Lorimer added. “We’re sort of on the verge of everyone figuring out how to use these things better, and we’d like to be at the front edge of that.”

And despite their bad experience with drones grounding firefighting aircraft near Oliver last summer, the B.C. Wildfire Service tested drones during the Elaho and Boulder Creek fires near Pemberton by flying them near nightfall to look for hot spots with thermal-imaging cameras.

“It was very much a trial over a couple of days,” chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek said.

West Vancouver-based Lofty Media started out shooting aerial video for promotional real-estate videos, but is angling to get into bigger film productions and is preparing to try crop surveying for farmers, said Andrew Fyfe, the company’s marketing director.

“We haven’t done any of those (crop-survey) jobs yet, but I definitely see that as a part of it as we grow,” Fyfe said. “With thermal-imaging cameras, you can fly down a row of fruit trees and the camera will pick up how many fruit are on the trees, which will give the farmer a pretty accurate yield of what their crop is going to be, and it’s pretty valuable information.”