Crown research institute Scion is working closely with the forest industry in using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for new mapping technologies that have the potential to revolutionise forest analysis and management.
"The main objective is to have an eye in the sky to provide a perspective on forestry we haven't had before," said Bryan Graham, Scion's science leader for forest industry informatics.
Scion's UAV uses LiDAR, spectral imagery and other technologies mounted beneath the machine for a variety of tasks. The technologies can greatly increase forest management efficiencies by allowing companies to track and guide workers on regular forestry maintenance and remediation, and issues such as fire prevention and control.
"The next generation use is in terms of analysis and better decision-making," said Mr Graham.
Technologies such as LiDAR, multi-spectral and thermal imaging, allow forest managers to see what cannot be seen with the human eye.
"That will really influence how we use our forest land. It's taking forest management to the next level beyond basic management to better planning and decision-making."
LiDAR imaging allows forest managers to map forests and gather tree metrics, including height and volumes that can contribute to the knowledge of wood properties ascertained through other methods.
Meanwhile, spectral and thermal imaging provides insight into factors such as tree health, he said.
Scion has been working on its UAV programme for about a year, and now has one large UAV, plus a couple of smaller training drones.
The UAVs can be programmed to fly a course set by GPS waypoints, which allows operators to focus more on what is being done by the craft, rather than on keeping it under control.
"That's really why it's becoming important. In the past, you needed to fly a plane over, or buy satellite imagery. Now you can put your UAV up to get a perspective on what is happening in the forest, download the data and analyse the results."
Scion sees its role as carrying out research, not in only the acquisition and analysis of data, but in the processes around becoming sustainably operational.
Early adopters of the technology include forestry technical services providers such as Rotorua-based Interpine, says Scion.
Interpine general manager and forest analyst David Herries says the technology provides its experts with "another set of eyes" to make decisions.
"We see ourselves working very closely with Scion commercialising and implementing research and methodologies and allowing the industry to adopt some of these technologies faster than they may do otherwise," he said.
"There's an opportunity for UAVs to really change the way our experts see the forest in front of them."
Forestry work is among New Zealand's most dangerous, and Mr Herries said the UAVs also had the potential to improve work safety by allowing a trainer to monitor and advise staff remotely.