LiDAR's Impact on the Industry

By Jack Petree

It’s safe to say many in the forest products industry don’t hear the term LiDAR (light detection and ranging) used much in everyday work life. That is likely to change soon, according to Dr. Mark Corrao, an expert on the application of this technology in the forestry sector.

“Today, LiDAR technology is cutting edge for forestry but commonplace for many other industries such as precision agriculture,” says Corrao, a managing partner in Northwest Management Inc. (NMI), a consulting firm to the forest industry; co-CEO for SMART Forest Solutions (SFS), an international resource management consortium; and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Idaho College of Ag Sciences and College of Natural Resources. He explains that hardware and software transitions have revolutionized the ability of airborne LiDAR to analyze forest structure in detail and provide a single-tree forest census.

The capacity to precisely describe this level of detail in a forest has broad potential application for forest managers seeking to enhance forest health and resilience on public and private lands. In the not too distant future, Corrao adds, advances in technology are likely to make LiDAR an everyday tool of great importance for not only the owners and managers of large forests but also those working with medium and small forested acreages. “The ability to save the already limited resources of time and money on any property begins now and will only increase into the future,” he says.


Developed in the 1960s, LiDAR was used on the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 and has long been used in geological surveying to create detailed topographical maps. According to Wikipedia, “LiDAR is a surveying method that measures distance to a target by illuminating the target with laser light and measuring the reflected light with a sensor. Differences in laser return times and wavelengths can then be used to make digital 3-D representations of the target.”

The level of detail produced is a function of the number of laser light pulses generated and returned from the target, combined with the ability of the equipment to receive, measure, and represent the data as a 3-D image.

Prior to 2014, equipment limitations meant LiDAR images were relatively crude and mostly used to develop topographic maps and general vegetative structure. Advances in this technology since 2015 have contributed to high-definition representations of terrain, the vegetation on that terrain, and special features of importance to land managers, engineers, and planners.

LiDARPutting LiDAR to Work

LiDAR may be familiar to many people because of its association with self-driving vehicles. Indeed, manufacturers of forestry machines are already working on using the technology to guide self-driving harvesters, forwarders, and similar equipment.

As a mapping tool, LiDAR has shown significant benefits to the general public, demonstrated by the number of state governments already well into “first pass” mapping for a broad variety of geographical parameters including the identification of potential slide areas, steep slopes, archeological sites, and other significant features previously hidden, absent extensive and costly on-the-ground investigations.

The increasing availably of LiDAR data from these public efforts during the past ten years has allowed the forest products industry across the West to access much greater resolution data for most areas of their local, regional, state, and federal forestlands. A consequence of rapid advances in LiDAR technology means more recent scans are of higher quality than some of the older data, which may be insufficient to create a single-tree inventory. However, the older scans still provide valuable foundational data for a high-quality collection because as technology advances, the new scans, according to Corrao, “are additive, not replacing.”

Practical Application

For forest managers, Corrao feels LiDAR has the potential to bring about fundamental change in the management of the forests they are responsible for. In his roles with NMI, SFS, and the University of Idaho, Corrao sees the potential of LiDAR nearly every day. He witnesses forward-thinking students and clients, including Tribal Nations and private industrial landowners, utilizing LiDAR to not only optimize forest operations, but to also assist in making their forest lands more resilient and healthy in the face of increasing wildfire and a changing climate.

LiDARMaking an Impact

Corrao says LiDAR will one day impact nearly every aspect of the forest products industry and his team provides value to clients today. “Currently we are seeing the density of pulses per square meter (PPM) increase for LiDAR data acquisitions that look to target forestry applications.” While the data obtained from current sensors and pulse densities can lack the resolution and quality to compete with the results of conventional forest inventory, Corrao comments, “These scans do provide excellent terrain data for roads, streams, and many land-manage and planning level analyses.”

Corrao adds that NMI products ““These products are designed to build on conventional inventory with the intention of replacing it within the next 2 to 5 years. We expect there will always be a need for field data collection, however we anticipate a significant reduction in the time and cost components of it. Something along the lines of 10 foresters for 3 months on 1 million acres, instead of 10 foresters on 20,000 acres for the same time applying conventional inventory methods.”

Amazing Levels of Information

When accomplished at the pulse densities and acquisition parameters specified by the SFS consortium, LiDAR can provide data richness at a resolution able to yield results not typically obtainable through conventional field sampling methods (see figure 1 Corrao PLC screen shot), providing that extraordinary level of information at cost-competitive, or better, levels. Even with these seemly amazing technological applications, today’s advances are only the beginning.

“The LiDAR analysis NMI provides offers a single-tree-level structural forest inventory. This detail is necessary to manage a forest at the ground level of thinning, tree-selection, and silvicultural planning,” says Corrao. “A single-tree-level census of the forest also provides opportunities for improved forest growth modeling, wildlife tree detection for some ESA species, forest valuation information for post-fire assessments, and likely of greatest interest to the forest products world, an ability to calculate value per acre and whole tree merchandizing based on known segment distributions and locations, as well as proximity of utilization facilities and transportation access.”

Regarding the future uses for LiDAR in forestry, Corrao points to experimental aerial LiDAR collected from UAVs and helicopters by leading-edge research efforts around the world at densities of >7000PPM. Data at that resolution, Corrao says, shows some promise in remotely detecting defects, wood quality, and some measure of forest health at the single-tree level.

Although practical results are hampered by current computer hardware limitations, Corrao suggests that in the not-so-distant future, “[We]…may have much of the data necessary to make forestlands more resilient to climate change, manage water quality, and increase everyone’s opportunity to access and understand forest health and restoration activities as well as contribute to win-win solutions.

Entering a New Realm

Few new technologies have had or will have the impact to every single aspect of the forest products industry that LiDAR is likely to have.

“We truly are experiencing the modernization of forestry,” says Corrao. In the 2020s, forestry and the industry dependent on forest management will be nearly unrecognizable compared to the industry of the year 2000. LiDAR, and successor technologies, will be at the center of this remaking of the industry influencing how, where, why, and when we plant, tend, and harvest our forests. It will affect the machinery utilized to harvest wood and wood products, the processing of those products, and the marketing and use of the end products to a world concerned with greenhouse gas emissions. In nearly every way, the dawning of the second decade of the Century is a “new dawn” for the forest products industry.

TimberWest November/December 2013
March/April 2020

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