Precision forestry is a new shoot on the trunk of precision technologies. It’s about developing the forest in the most productive way, while respecting its rich natural qualities.
From intuition to hard data
Natural conditions vary in a forest. There are dry and humid patches, areas where root rot has got a foothold, much and little humus content. These areas need to be treated differently. Heavy felling equipment cannot be used in very humid patches. Once cleared, humid patches will require other species than dry areas. Root-rot is a clear cause for planting other species. There are landscape and water protection factors, recreational values and cultural heritage. Traditionally, decisions on these matters were made on eye inspection. Following the rules of sustainable forestry drawn up by Hans Carl von Carlowitz, three hundred years ago.
Modern technology now allows us make such decisions based on hard data. McKinsey has shed its light on this new science and practice of precision forestry and uses the big words ‘a revolution in the woods’. Luke, the Natural Resources Institute Finland, more modestly speaks of ‘cost savings and risk management’. Nevertheless, it’s the same subject they’re talking about. So far, says the Luke website, data is used much in logging. But much less in silvicultural activities, i.e. replanting and forest management. ‘Precision silviculture means that the properties of the growth location and other environmental and condition factors are used more precisely in forest regeneration and raising,’ says Luke’s Timo Saksa. By being proactive, forest owners can save costs: they can minimise unnecessary work by using more precise data. For instance, this will allow them to select more precisely tree species to be planted. And by using the appropriate mixed cover, they can better control risks and damage. In their EFFORTE project, together with Metsä Group, Luke has produced grid maps in the Pirkanmaa region. They defined growth potential and the appropriate tree cover for each pixel in the grid. The purpose is to make the selection and patterning of tree species a semi-automatic routine and, finally, to improve tree growth.
The revolution of precision forestry
In their report Precision forestry: A revolution in the woods, McKinsey argues that digital technology has revolutionised industries around the globe, from manufacturing to healthcare to agriculture. So far, forestry has lagged behind. But this is now starting to change. Some forestry pioneers, they say, achieve productivity increases and returns on investment similar to other industries. The size of these gains is even comparable to the shift from animal-powered to mechanised processes. Precision forestry, the authors say, is enabled by a wide range of emerging technologies, such as drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), laser scanning (lidar), and soil sensors. But this is just the easy part of precision forestry. The more difficult part is to interpret the data and translate this into maintenance strategies. Digital technologies assist to this in four ways:
1. Tighter control of operations
2. Increased selectivity of prescriptions
3. Automation of operations, from nurseries to wood logistics
4. Optimised decision-making with advanced analytics
The report details 15 precision forestry technologies or practices the authors believe show the greatest promise to transform operations and improve forest management results.
The McKinsey authors notice that there are many technology suppliers in precision forestry already. The availability of these technologies, even of those being trialled, signals a major shift in the industry. The key to capturing the potential value, they say, will be a holistic digital transformation; this should bring together the now still disparate applications of new technologies. The report concludes: ‘The advent of these new tools and capabilities offers potential beyond raising the efficiency of practices handed down from the 18th century. It heralds the start of a revolution in how we manage the health and the performance of the world’s forests.’