Drone Utilization in Forestry

The author of this article, Rachel Martin, is a Client Account Manager based in Madison, Georgia. She has experience working as a field forester for more than 6 years.

Drone Utilization in Forestry

“There is more than one way to skin a cat.” This expression can easily be applied when discussing today’s forest operations. Advancements in technology and connectivity have led to the expansion of the forest management toolbox. One rapidly evolving addition in forestry technology is the use of drones for many woods-related activities. While it’s hard to beat a morning walk in the woods, the dog days of summer are quickly approaching.

For this reason, it’s often more appealing to stay at the truck and let the drone do the work. While there are many jobs that can only be accomplished with boots on the ground, the number of tasks drones can complete is growing exponentially. A few activities where drones are being utilized include “touring” real estate tracts, performing silvicultural activity checks, completing pest and storm damage surveys, and initiating land security checks.

Depending on the needs of the operator, drone sizes and capabilities vary. Some drones weigh less than half a pound and can fly for 5 to 7 minutes on a 20-minute charge. Others can fly up to an elevation of 8,200 feet at speeds of 40 miles per hour while carrying 13 pounds of cargo.

In forestry, many drone pilots value battery life and camera quality over drone speed and size. Battery life is important since many flights require long periods of airtime. High-resolution cameras ensure captured images preserve the most detailed property attributes.

Most folks who have recently been in the market for a home have noticed the increase in “virtual tour” options. Drones became invaluable in allowing people to be socially distant while viewing properties during the pandemic. With drone technology, a potential buyer can now take a virtual tour of a timberland property from the comfort of their own home! Like with residential properties, drones allow real estate agents to highlight property features without scheduling meetings in the woods. The agent can also show property features that are not easily accessible on the ground.

Many field forestry tasks often require extensive walking. With the use of drones, a forester can more efficiently complete post-harvest silvicultural inspections. Flying the tract to survey green-up can assist in establishing chemical treatment boundaries and determining the proper application rates.

A recently sprayed tract is more easily inspected to confirm job satisfaction with no missed areas, including those far-away corners. Finally, flying a drone along a freshly planted row of trees provides a bird’s-eye view of the seedlings and allows the forester to make a final assessment of the planting quality.

Checking a tract for pest or storm damage can be a long, sad, and sometimes dangerous walk. While it won’t be less discouraging to find heavy mortality from pine beetles, drones give the forester the ability to inspect the areas quickly. Storm damage can create logistical issues and safety concerns in the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado, leaving a tract inaccessible from the ground. In this case, drones can rise above the canopy so damage can be evaluated and a salvage plan developed.

Finally, landowners want to keep their property secure from trespassers. Poachers, squatters, and even well-intentioned recreationalists can create liability issues and cause long-term damage to a property. Routine drone flights allow a forester to safely check a property without confrontation.

These inspections can often uncover new trails or roads, unattended vehicles or ATVs, or even makeshift campsites. With drone observations in-hand, the forester can address issues more quickly without driving every road and searching every corner of the property.

Drone usage in forestry improves efficiency, safety, and accessibility. Whether the user is employed by a consultant or a larger timber company, drones help complete their jobs more quickly while providing detailed field observations. Going forward, emerging technologies will expand drone applications and simplify a forester’s daily field tasks.


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