The purpose of the forest industry is to provide the world with wood-based products, such as lumber, paper, and renewable energy. Yet as populations and standards of living increase, so does the need for wood products. The demand for more wood also gives rise to concern over earth’s remaining natural forests. With the need for producing more wood based products and keeping the earth’s untouched forests protected, it is evident that forestry must become more efficient.
Foresters are joining forces with the space industry to develop solutions to help preserve our environment’s natural assets. This new approach is sometimes referred to as precision forestry, and it relies on the newest technological solutions driven by data. A number of precision forestry companies are creating solutions that are helping the forestry industry improve its productivity and also its environmental impact.
PlanetWatchers, for example, is a startup that applies remote sensing, radar satellite imagery and artificial intelligence to monitor natural assets, such as forests. PlanetWatchers’ founders, Ariel Smoliar and Roi Shilo, used remote sensing and radar satellite imagery during their military service and in their scientific research. The two discovered that this advanced technology could also be used to detect the slightest anomalies in our forests.
To get a better understanding of how this technology is being applied to monitor forests, I spoke with Dr. Päivi Väänänen, PlanetWatchers’ Head of Forestry Program. She is a professional forester and a forest ecologist from Helsinki, Finland, who recently earned her Ph.D from Hebrew University of Jerusalem by studying the effect of drought on trees in Israel. Päivi explains from a biological perspective how remote sensing, radar satellites, and big data analytics are helping to preserve our forests.
Q: What is the role of a forest ecologist within a satellite imagery analytics company?
During the time I spent living in Israel, I was exposed to advanced satellite imaging and big data technologies, and became aware of many possibilities for using military and defense research for the good of the environment. This is what drew me to work with PlanetWatchers. I was, and I still am, fascinated by the possibilities that are coming into our reach with developing technology. Combining satellite data with data from other sources results in interesting insights about the forest structure and its function.
Q: What challenges does the global forest industry face today ?
We are living in a world that is rapidly changing and our standards of living are rising. There is now a much greater demand for wood-based products and other goods intended to replace environmentally harmful materials with less harmful ones. On the other hand, there is also a great need to protect the earth’s remaining natural forests. Deforestation is occurring today mostly in the tropics, and despite some local advances, it is still proceeding at staggering speed. The forest industry faces a dual challenge in managing them: how to meet increased demand now, while protecting both the industry’s future and the global environment.
To make things even more complicated, forestry is facing this challenge in a world where environmental conditions, such as rainfall regime, storm, drought and fire frequencies, and temperatures, are all rapidly changing. This requires the forest industry to adapt to changing conditions, while not only keeping the wood production at high level, but actually increasing it.
Q: How do you think the technology being applied by PlanetWatchers will help improve challenges faced by the forestry industry?
I was blown away by how our satellite image analytics technology can detect the slightest of changes in forest structure. For example, we were able to see spatial and temporal patterns in the forest that I wasn’t expecting to ever see by means of remote sensing, and definitely not during such short intervals. There were also no limitations from the presence of clouds or fog. I think that PlanetWatchers’ weather radar technology can really help address the challenges presented by climate change related disturbances such as pests, damage, drought and fire, and help with improving the overall productivity of the forest.
Also, PlanetWatchers’ technology is very sensitive to forest growth. This is something that foresters, such as myself, obsess about. Not only can this technology monitor disturbances, but it can also offer this very practical operational tool to improve yield when viewing the forest as an investment.
Q: Do you see PlanetWatchers technology having a big impact on how commercial forests are managed?
Yes - there is currently no other monitoring service of this precision and scale today. I can say wholeheartedly that this is the future of forestry. This is an industry that changes constantly, but slowly: some practices and methods developed a hundred years ago are still in use today. Today, there are more high-tech tools that are available for us to use for practical forest management, but professional foresters are still highly dependent on data obtained manually from the field. This means going into forests and measuring trees and then assuming that these trees represent an entire forest. This is expensive, sometimes dangerous, and often statistically indefensible. But now, remote sensing technology enables us to monitor every corner of an entire forest, while detecting small changes. This is really revolutionary.
Q: What about the role of humans? Will technology replace foresters?
AgTech hasn’t replaced farmers, but it has radically changed how they spend their days. I believe the same will be true of forestry. There are things that technology will take entirely out of human hands, but there are other areas in which human judgement is irreplaceable.
One of the biggest challenges in managing forests is their vast geographic extent. Traditional boots on the ground measurement simply doesn’t provide enough information to make good decisions. Satellite based technology can cover large areas of forest in a heartbeat, during both the night and day, regardless of weather.
Artificial intelligence can detect patterns in these volumes of raw data that even expert humans cannot see. These patterns can then be combined with other sources of data, such as weather data, to reveal relationships, that allow us to learn more about the way our forests are structured and the way they function. In order for us to increase wood production, or to mitigate climate change, these kinds of insights may be vital.
Q: How is this technology helping with sustainability?
Wood-based products can help us replace other materials that can be much more harmful to the environment, such as concrete, aluminum, and plastics, which are major risk to Earth’s marine ecosystems. By improving the productivity of commercial forests and preventing damage, we can produce more wood from a given area. This reduces the pressure to log old-growth forests, to buy questionably-sourced wood, or to plant trees for wood on land that could be put to other uses. In order to reach these goals, we need more powerful technological tools for forest monitoring.
Q: Can PlanetWatchers help fight forest fires, like the recent ones in Northern California?
The recent increase in forest fires is a consequence of climate change and the increase in forest biomass. Climate change has pushed global temperatures higher and decreased precipitation, which increases the probability of forest fires.
Although I don’t believe that wildfires can be fully prevented by technology, I do think that technology can help predict forest fires more precisely and mitigate their damage more efficiently. Predicting forest fires requires an understanding of the forest fuel load - the amount of dry and flammable biomass accumulated in a specific forests - and the past and present meteorological conditions. Analyzing these huge datasets, patterns related to fire risks may emerge.
Q: Do you see other areas where PlanetWatchers’ technology can have a positive environmental impact?
Yes, absolutely. This kind of technology offers vast possibilities for tracking environmental changes occurring all around the world, from detecting oil spills to measuring subtle changes in the ice cover near the polar regions. Many of the challenges of forestry are shared by agriculture, and many of the monitoring solutions have applications in energy, mining and beyond. In all these cases, increasing productivity of limited natural resources brings benefits in terms of commerce - in the form of higher production - and environment - by using less virgin natural resources. It’s a very exciting space to be in.