Money doesn’t grow on trees, but with drone technology businesses are developing increasingly effective ways of extracting billions of dollars from forests.

Drones were first used by the US military in the early 2000s to prevent human casualties during high-risk missions. The technology has since been developed to the point where it is in everyday use.

People are now using drones for fun as well as for mundane tasks, such as delivering parcels. However, it is businesses that are seeing the biggest benefits.

Forestry is among the sectors that stands the most to gain out of the deployment of drone technology.


Drones help forestry firms branch out

The gross domestic product of many countries around the world is bolstered by forestry. Canada generates around $20 billion per year from its forest sector, while the German forestry industry employs more than one million people.

In most cases, paper and wood producers employ staff to monitor forests in what is often a laborious and time-consuming process.

With around 20% of its export revenue coming from forestry, Finland has wasted no time in embracing drone technology.

Companies in Finland are now using drones to count and measure different species of trees in two thirds of the time that it used to take.


Deep-learning software holds the key

While the use of drones is vital in obtaining the necessary imagery, the real results are delivered by the data crunching that goes on behind the scenes.

Tata Consultancy Services’ (TCS) deep-learning neural network algorithm uses pictures taken by drones over the forests outside of Helsinki to identify the number, diameter and height of trees to an accuracy of around 95%.

TCS is currently in the process of training its algorithm to be able to tell the difference between different species of trees.

Tirwari Shashwat, TCS innovation evangelist for the Nordic region, explains: “Our algorithm identifies the edges of each tree as seen from the air and based on those edges it works out what the diameter is, as well as where one tree stops and another one starts so we can count the trees.

“When the drone moves from point A to point B it has different angles to look at the trees, so we are also able to calculate the height of these trees.”

This allows producers to calculate the amount of wood that can be extracted from forests. It also enables them to take steps to protect future harvests.


Retraining forestry workers

Automation will become much more common in the years ahead, but that doesn’t necessarily mean machines will be putting people out of work.

To protect jobs it is important to retrain those with traditional skills, such as forestry workers who count and measure trees manually, so that they are equipped for a career in the digital age.

As Shashwat says: “When it comes to automation there are always questions about how it will affect the people who were previously doing the job.

“The intent here is to retrain these workers. For example, instead of driving a truck through the forest they could be retrained to fly a drone.”

The many uses of drone technology

A growing number of businesses are using drones for a range of different functions.

In agriculture, farmers have turned to the technology as a way of identifying failing plants and taking inventories of crops. The machines can also be used to map and study farmland and its irrigation systems.

The building industry is also benefitting. Architects can use images and footage of a property to create 3D renderings of the structures they aim to build. Drones can also be used to scan skyscrapers for damage, a task that would otherwise require some human risk.

But it is not just commercial organisations that are using drones to their advantage. The technology has been adopted by conservation groups to monitor and protect endangered species, such as the one-horned rhino.

Drones are also being deployed to create a more connected planet, with the devices used to bring wireless internet access to remote communities in developing countries.

The evolution of the drone from a machine that causes destruction to one that builds better societies is now almost complete.