By Jim Stirling
Unpredictable and extreme weather patterns have become routine. Consistently warmer and drier years are placing new strains on forest ecosystems. Trees are becoming increasingly stressed and dehydrated by the prolonged changes, making them more vulnerable to attack from beetles, rusts and other pests and ripe for the ravages of wildfires.
There are more than 8,000 forest fires each year in Canada. In many cases their behaviours are changing with the climate. Their ferocity and changeability ushers new definitions of catastrophe. The Fort McMurray inferno last spring is one chilling example.
Those charged with containing and extinguishing wildfires are testing and investing in an increasingly technology-driven arsenal of tools. Unmanned aerial vehicles—or drones—are one example.
Larry McCulloch had his moment of drone epiphany when he witnessed a drone undergoing testing in Alaska a few years ago. “I knew immediately it offered a range of practical forestry applications,” he recalled. And so it has proved. McCulloch is principal with L.M. Forest Resource Solutions Ltd., based at Smithers in west central British Columbia. The company has been offering a range of resource management services to its clients since 1986.
The acquisition of and experience with drones during the last three years offer a new range of opportunity and potential for forest and other natural resource managers requiring precise, detailed information in close to real time. The ability of a drone carrying purpose-designed cameras delivers the types of information that give wildfire control managers an advantage in allocating resources safely and more effectively.
McCulloch’s company operates three types of drone to suit different applications. There’s a DJI S900 hexacopter (six rotary blades) manufactured in China and teamed with a 36 megapixel Sony A7R full frame camera. McCulloch says the S900 can operate for about 15 minute assignments. The latest acquisition to the company’s fleet is a DJI Matrice 600 which can operate for about 30 minutes at speeds around 60 kilometres per hour. The Turboace Matrix E drone with Sony A7 camera represents less of a payload and can work for about half-an-hour at speeds up to 100 kilometres per hour.
Transport Canada regulations control the use of drones. The devices have become increasingly popular for a wide variety of recreational and other users. L.M. Forest Resource Solutions has been granted a special flight operations certificate from Transport Canada to operate its drones commercially.
Drone use is typically limited to a height of around 100 metres with a visual line of sight maintained. An advantage of flying higher is that more ground can be covered, but the trade-off is the images produced by the cameras have less resolution. McCulloch says the high resolution cameras he employs on his drones can deliver on-ground accuracies from less than one centimetre per pixel to three centimetres. By way of comparison, when the B.C. Forest Service flies an area to update forest inventory information, the imaging collected is in about 20-30 centimetres per pixel range, he says.
The thermal sensing imagery directed by a drone has several applications for the B.C. Wildfire Management Service in terms of suppression and detection.
“We can get accurate temperatures of a fire as it’s burning and identify hot spots in the mop-up stages,” explains McCulloch.
Wildfires will frequently follow root systems and can persist underground for months. They can then flare up again when temperatures and ground conditions allow. Detecting and dealing with the fire risk initially can prevent a lot of later grief.
“The drones can also scout out areas too dangerous for people to access,” adds McCulloch. “They can provide critical information about the behaviour at the head of the fire and check out things like available water sources.”
Accurately interpreting the data collected by the drone’s cameras is key. Computerized software can produce detailed three-dimensional models of a given area. The height, species and diameter of individual trees can be calculated along with information like their crown areas, he continues. A wealth of detailed forest land information can be gleaned from the drone’s imagery. Road grade details and timber volumes, for example, along with the volumes of materials like gravel in a given location. A model can be produced that strips tree and surface cover to reveal the nature of the bare earth beneath. “It’s amazing what you can do with the technology.”
McCulloch says L.M. Forest Resource Solutions is working with the B.C. Forest Service to incorporate drone-delivered image technology to provide accurate forest fuel loading data. The amounts of on-ground fibre affect the speed and intensity of forest fire development. The information is useful in many ways including being able to better predict fire behaviour and in helping indicate areas where “fire-proofing” communities or infrastructure is most required.
Forest Pest detection is a further intriguing potential for a drone fitted with a multi spectral camera, reckons McCulloch. The technology could be applied to identify the presence of stem rusts, for example, before changes in colour occur. And similarly, the camera could pinpoint trees under attack from the spruce bark beetle. The spruce beetles, unlike their mountain pine counterparts, stay within a tree, undetected by any outward signs until the infestation is well advanced. A drone with the appropriate camera could provide an early warning system for where an infestation lurks and from that, where it might be reasonably anticipated to spread.
On the Cover:
Simple, clean and efficient were the guiding principles for B.C. logger Gregory Jacob when he began his examination of available steep slope log harvesting methods. He was able to get exactly that, and the key new machine in Gregory’s steep slope arsenal is a wheeled John Deere 1910E cut to length forwarder with a Haas winch. Read all about it on page 10 (Cover photo by Jim Stirling).
Spotlight - Finding your future employees
A new Forestry Machine Operator Training program being offered by the Canadian Woodlands Forum and several other organizations could be part of the answer to the challenge of finding, and training, equipment operators—and be a model for elsewhere in Canada.
Lo-Bar tackles high ground
B.C.’s Lo-Bar Transport has a new steep slope system involving a wheeled John Deere 1910E cut to length forwarder with a Haas winch which provides easier access to timber across a broader cross section of steep and challenging terrains.
Up in smoke—not
A new sawmill came on stream this spring in the B.C. Interior—thanks to the co-operation of three forest industry parties—and the end result is that wood fibre that would have been piled and literally gone up in polluting smoke will now be converted to viable wood products.
Combining the efforts—and tenures—of First Nations
The Carrier Sekani Tribal Council in the B.C. Interior is looking at ways that scattered First Nations communities with small tenures can work together, and scale up the opportunities and benefits from the forest resource.
Going Dutch on sawmill
Two companies have joined forces on a new specialty sawmill that is taking Sitka Spruce in northwestern B.C.—known for growing tall and straight, with long fibres and tight ring counts—to produce high end product for a reman plant in Holland.
Canada North Resources Expo Official Show Guide
Extensive show coverage including CNRE stories, exhibitor list, floor plan … and more!
Forest fire fighting—with drones!
Drones are proving to be very useful tools in business, and a B.C. firm is now exploring their practical applications in the working forest, notably in wildfire control and prevention, an increasing area of concern considering extreme weather patterns.
Planer ups production
The planer mill at Tolko’s Armstrong, B.C., sawmill is seeing positive bottom-line results from an upgrade that has allowed the planer operation to greatly increase its production—with the kicker that more of that production is higher grade lumber.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry.
The Last Word
Super logging equipment consumers are super valuable to logging equipment manufacturers—and dealers, says Jim Stirling.