Accurately monitoring and managing forested areas is crucial for long-term environmental, social and economic sustainability. According to a McKinsey report, “globally, about 300 million hectares of plantation forests…and 900 million hectares of natural forests used for wood production…together supply nearly two billion cubic meters of industrial wood and two billion cubic meters of fuelwood for household heating and cooking.” Ensuring the most efficient and future-proof forestry monitoring and management processes are in place is fundamental to keeping things in balance.

Historically, these processes have been largely manual, requiring heavy human intervention and a blanket managerial approach often based on isolated areas with little cross-site or cross-country applicability. But as technology evolves and other forestry-adjacent industries, such as agriculture, begin to employ more sophisticated digital processes to predict crop yields and manage pests, the opportunity for technology use in forestry is naturally opening up.

The term ‘precision forestry’ refers to the increased use of advanced technologies to yield far more effective strategies to manage and monitor forests into the future, collecting site-specific data to enhance decision-making and predictive capabilities. Some of these technologies include remote sensing through airborne laser scanners, satellite imagery and visualisation software such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Decision Support Systems (DSS). As computerised tools, DSSs range from systems that aid in climate comparison, predictions, data visualisation and pest management to tools that anticipate wind damage and tree species suitability and aid in the mapping and managing of forested areas.

Other precision forestry technologies include GPS, Inertial Navigation Systems (INS), digital surveying equipment, drones and much more.

So, what does precisions forestry look like in action, and who uses it to drive positive environmental, economic and social outcomes?

Precision Forestry Technology - Satellite Imagery - GIS - Swift Geospatial

Precision forestry in action

Precision forestry technologies have enhanced how forest managers can coordinate teams and machinery, improved data collection and accuracy and opened up a world of automation that speeds up processes and helps in cost containment.

From this same McKinsey report, the list of benefits of using precision forestry are:

  • tighter control of operations with improved data collection;
  • increased selectivity of prescriptions to match site and needs, for instance, soil nutrients and the genetic material of seedlings planted;
  • automation of operations, from nurseries to wood logistics; and
  • optimised decision-making with advanced analytics.
Precision Forestry Finland

Precision forestry in action: Finland

Finland is one country leading the charge when it comes to using precision forestry. One precision forestry method being employed is cut-to-length (CTL). CTL refers to a tree harvesting method in which trees are delimbed and cut to length directly at the stump by two machines that fell, delimb, buck, sort and extract the timber. During a harvest, these machines are mounted with sensors that collect detailed information such as tree species, timber assortments, tree quality and stem curve, according to researchers at the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Geodetic Institute.

These sensors can also collect data about soil and individual plants, monitor thinning density and help the logging machine driver make more informed, site-specific decisions. CTL is a method deemed “light on the land” by Madden Sustainable Forestry, reducing damage to surrounding trees compared to manual felling and creating a debris mat from cut tops and branches that return nutrients to the soil. The only way this method is made possible and optimised is through the technology used in precision forestry.

Other technologies being employed in Finland include:

  • Semiautonomous silvicultural machines. Using machine vision, laser scanners, and automatic motion control, these machines can identify tree maturity and guide forest managers on which trees should be cut down and which should be left to grow.
  • A digital harvesting planning tool. Developed at the University of Helsinki, this tool compares and evaluates alternative harvesting plans and maps out optimal logging trails in the forest. The results? Enhanced productivity, improved wood removal, forest structure reliability and reduced environmental impact.
  • Trafficability Prediction and Route Planning for Forest Machines (TRAM). This is a machine-learning approach to predict terrain trafficability for forest machines based on mode-data fusion run as a joint project by the Natural Resources Institute Finland and the University of Turku.

Finland also offers global consulting services that look at the entire forestry value chain, from digital solutions that allow tree-level data to build a digital twin of the forest to determining natural capital, calculating carbon footprint and designing compensation projects to offset the same.

Precision Forestry America - Swift Geospatial

Precision forestry in action: Arizona, USA

Light Detection and Ranging, also known as LiDAR, provides accurate 3D mapping of land and forest, giving forest managers information on everything from “the shape of the trees and density of the leaves, to underground forest vegetation, detection of surface or underground disease” and more according to digital solutions developer Softtek.

In Arizona, engineering firm Merrick & Company fitted a Cessna 414A aeroplane with Teledyne Optech Galaxy G2 sensors – these sensors produce a 3D image comparable to FLASH LiDAR, meaning excellent resolution and superior data fidelity – and flew it over their grounds. This allowed researchers to map areas of low, medium and high vegetation and create a detailed digital elevation model of the site, mapping tree crown points and creating tree canopy polygons to assess the density of leaf cover. This information is crucial when considering ecological sustainability and how to mitigate forest impacts by industry, on top of evaluating aspects such as flood or landslide hazards and soil properties.

Precision Forestry United Kingdom - Swift Geospatial

Precision forestry in action: United Kingdom

Funded by the UK Space Agency, a project called TreeView “will conduct a feasibility study for a SmallSat mission, which will allow trees to be measured, mapped and monitored from space and lead to the development of the UK’s first Precision Forestry tool” says Open University who is running the project.

This project is a response to rising climate pressures and a means to accurately measure and monitor tree planting for carbon sequestration in the UK. The initial phases of this project will determine the “size, species distribution and potential of UK’s tree-based carbon stores and the current state, resilience and vulnerability of UK tree biodiversity,” the University says.

Precision forestry in action: South Africa

Although not forestry-specific, the South African sugar industry has access to sophisticated and dedicated weather monitoring systems and large amounts of weather data that allow them to understand how weather impacts sugar cane physiology, growth patterns and yields. Technology enables the industry to make informed decisions using valuable data sets.

Taking inspiration from this, Mondi – a sustainable packaging and paper provider – partnered with the SA Sugar Research Institute to collaborate on the Automatic Weather Station (AWS) programme, which involved deploying 29 automated weather stations across Mondi’s land holdings in 2015.

As discussed at the Precision Forestry Symposium in Stellenbosch in 2017, there is a significant geographical overlap between sugar and timber, and collaborations of this kind produce data on weather cycles and their impact on growth and yields that can benefit all parties.

Satellite imagery and precision forestry

Swift Geospatial’s precision forestry solutions harness the power of high-quality, accurate satellite imagery and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to enhance forest management practices. Our approach is rooted in the use of advanced remote sensing technology to provide forest managers and stakeholders with invaluable insights to enable more accurate decision-making. With high-resolution satellite imagery, Swift Geospatial can conduct thorough forest inventory assessments, accurately determining factors such as tree species, density, size, and overall health. This level of detail enables us to develop comprehensive databases crucial for sustainable forest management and informed planning.

Swift Geospatial’s GIS capabilities are equally integral to the precision forestry process. We enable dynamic monitoring of forests over time, enabling the identification of changes in forest cover, the detection of deforestation and reforestation, and the rapid response to disturbances such as wildfires and pest infestations. Our services empower forest managers to take proactive measures to safeguard their forests and ensure their long-term health.

One of the key strengths of Swift Geospatial and our Geospatial Forestry Platform lies in the precision harvesting operations we support. Our solutions leverage both satellite imagery and GIS data to determine the optimal areas for timber harvesting. This not only ensures the efficient use of forest resources but also minimises environmental impact, waste, and operational costs.

Through the integration of GIS and remote sensing data, we can identify areas of high biodiversity, allowing forest managers to protect critical habitats and make decisions that contribute to forest conservation. In the fight against climate change, our expertise assists in assessing carbon stocks within forests, making us a valuable partner in carbon sequestration initiatives. We are committed to biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation across the services we provide.

Swift Geospatial’s commitment to precision forestry extends to resource planning and decision support. Our GIS platforms such as our Geospatial Forestry Platform serve as a robust foundation for integrating various data sources and modelling tools, supporting forest management decisions that are based on data-driven insights. Swift Geospatial can provide data and change detection evidence that companies and governments can use to adhere to regulatory compliance and forest management regulations and policies.

Clients can access this information through interactive maps and dashboards that engage stakeholders, promoting transparency and participatory decision-making. Successful precision forestry is not just about data and technology but also about involving all relevant parties in the decision-making process.

Swift Geospatial stands at the forefront of data-driven precision forestry solutions, utilising satellite imagery and GIS software to deliver comprehensive, sustainable, and effective forest management.

Our services cater to the diverse needs of forest managers and their stakeholders. With a focus on both natural and plantation forestry, we empower the forestry industry to make informed decisions, protect their forests, and contribute to the broader goals of biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation.

Swift Geospatial is your trusted partner in realising the full potential of precision forestry through data-driven solutions.