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Laying out cutblocks—with a drone?
By Jim Stirling
Drones have a sinister reputation. They were originally used for delivering death, inflicting damage or for eavesdropping and espionage during times of conflict. But like other wartime equipment and methods, drones and the principles behind them have been adapted for more peaceful purposes.
Uses for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)—as they are more politely called in their newer guises—seem limited only by the imagination. And, as it turns out, by regulation.
Drone technology has been applied to delivering aid and packages to rural and isolated areas. More imaginatively, a scientific team from John Moores University in Liverpool, England uses drones to help calculate the densities of orangutans in the Indonesian rainforests.
Even Facebook is considering getting in on the drone movement. The social network wants to spread its reach ever further and reckons drones can be employed to that end by beaming wireless internet access to the most undeveloped corners of the world.
UAV uses are also applicable to forestry. In theory, they offer an enticing menu of possibilities. For instance, the technology has been successfully applied to efforts designed to reduce deforestation in Brazil.
Much closer to home, UAV can be useful tools for industrial applications such as timber cruising, silviculture, cut block layout, detailing vegetation stress and forest fire hot spot identification.
J.R. Canadian Mapping Ltd., based in Prince George, British Columbia, employs UAV as part of its services for the delivery of precision mapping and close range photogrammetry to clients worldwide. The company’s UAV are fitted with digital and video cameras that can take high resolution photos every second. The UAV typically flies slowly, averaging about 15 metres/second and can traverse about 250 hectares of forest in 45 minutes. The vehicle takes two people to deploy.
“We don’t design or build the individual components,” explained John Rankin, president of J.R. Canadian Mapping. “We order the components from all over and assemble them here in town. They are completely off the shelf. We are not in the UAV development business. We are mapping professionals.”
J.R Canadian Mapping’s UAV can effectively cover about 1000 hectares in a single flight and provide detailed photos down to a six to 10 centimetre resolution. “We can tell you complete tree cover information, including density, distribution, detailed tree heights, elevations and the complete topographical features under the trees,” he continued.”We also use UAV in many other industries, including mining and agriculture: anywhere where customers require high quality, three dimensional surfaces to work with.”
The UAV can be especially economic for specific forestry applications. “We can use the UAV to fly, say 2000 hectares, where it’s a one-time thing and not worth the cost of bringing in an aircraft.”
But there’s a more fundamental—not to mention frustrating—restriction on the more widespread forestry applications for UAV.
“We’re limited to how high we can fly. Transport Canada has established a ceiling,” noted Rankin. “We are also limited by line of sight even though visual restrictions make no sense in the vast majority of cases.”
It’s a phenomenon not restricted to Canada. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the U.S. bans the commercial use of UAV with some exceptions, like hobbyist use under operator line of sight in non-populated areas. Lobbying both for and against more open commercial use of UAV is gathering momentum south of the border.
The opening up of the skies side of the issue is being driven by growing commercial demand for the use of UAV weighing under 25 kilograms. The FAA is going to select six sites across the U.S. to help the agency better understand the implications of integrating UAV into American airspace. That process comes with a September 2015 deadline.
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International believes UAV have a huge potential to boost the U.S. economy by tens of billions of dollars each year. Even the FAA estimates there could be 10,000 UAV flying around as early as 2017. In the meantime, North America is losing ground to Europe in the range of applications and regular deployment of UAV. Civil UAV have their own designated airfields in some European countries.
Such occurrences are alarming for those parties gathered on the anti-drone side of the debate. Many are concerned about the privacy impacts of UAV use. Drones have a lingering reputation as a front for spying. Many individual states have considered bills designed to restrict UAV use. Individual cities have outright banned them. And it seems the Wild West syndrome is alive and flourishing in some quarters.
A town in Colorado, for example, is apparently seriously looking at allowing its citizenry to shoot down any UAV flying the skies above them. Rewards would even be offered for recovering the bits and pieces of any vehicle ambushed from overhead and turned in to the authorities.
Given the past history between the U.S. and Canada, if the more sensible heads prevail in the U.S. and the FAA experimentation with a cautious loosening of UAV restrictions proves successful, similar moves could follow north of the border. That in turn, could permit companies like J.R. Canadian Mapping to adapt and refine the range of UAV delivered technologies and services to the forest industry in B.C. and other forested regions across the country.
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