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Forestry management takes to the sky

The future of forestry is in the sky. And Warnell has taken flight with drones.

Drones are not just some fun class exercise, said Tripp Lowe, assistant professor and GIS Lab Manager. It’s teaching students about a valuable new technology that could one day change how they manage forestland.

“I have talked with folks using these small aircraft for tasks ranging from capturing current aerial photographs of a site to include in their GIS, to creating a 15-second video of the timberland they’re trying to sell, to those estimating the volume of chip piles at the mill and residual slash after harvest,” he said. “If you take some time and think about your management process, you’ll figure out two or three different ways using drone data can help you be more efficient.”

For example: A forester assigned to monitor an ongoing forest operation could deploy drones to capture photographs or videos of the forest’s current state—identify what has been harvested, the remaining sites to harvest, and existing or new areas of concern. 

“This type of information would be valuable not only during harvest checks but afterwards as photo/video documentation showing what an area looked like before, during, and after an operation—video evidence that BMPs were followed, that downstream water quality was not affected, that the poorly growing trees in the back-40 were harvested,” Lowe said. “Those are the types of applications we are teaching.”

Lowe is using the DJI Phantom 3 professional and Phantom 4 quadcopters—in the Unmanned Aerial Systems’ Role in Natural Resource Management class—and has plans to expand the mini aircraft fleet to include some that can carry a heavier load.

Lowe taught himself how to use the drones, watching “a lot of YouTube videos” and reading manuals, he said. “With a little practice, these aircraft are quite simple to fly—up, down, left, right.” But it wasn’t without some trial and error, especially figuring out what to do when something goes wrong, he said.

“During one of my first flights, I lost sight of the aircraft and panicked,” he said. “Instead of pressing the ‘return-to-home’ button, I hit the ‘stop-and-hover’ button and the aircraft did exactly that. After an anxious hike through the woods I found it hovering just above the tree line patiently waiting on its next set of commands.”

Lowe said students have had a good reaction to the drone classes. “Most of our students realize the importance of fresh data in the natural resource management workflow, and they recognize that these aircraft can be an excellent source for this information,” he said. “I think they are a little surprised, though, that they have to be certified by the FAA if they want to take flight for business. I think they were also surprised by the amount of pre-planning each flight requires.” 


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