Are Drones Ready for Forestry Applications?
At present drones are being put to a variety of uses within the Forestry sector. However, there are a few technological and regulatory advances that will be required in order to make the regular use of drones practical and economical for a broad range of applications. These changes are discussed below.
Beyond Line of Sight Flight
Currently the majority of commercial drone operations require that the pilot must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times. This requirement imposes restrictions on pilots, which greatly limits the range at which they can operate the drone. In forested environments it is often difficult to access vantage points that provide an unobstructed view of the drone while operating over the area of interest. Flights beyond line of sight would dramatically improve the pilot’s ability to fly over the area of interest reliably and cost effectively.
In most jurisdictions flying beyond line of sight is either coming soon or has only been permitted by regulation very recently. In Canada the first approved flight of this type occurred on February 24th, 2017. This approval was granted for the Aeryon SkyRanger drone – you can learn more here: https://www.aeryon.com/press-releases/skyranger-completes-transport-canada-approved-bvlos
Avoidance of Airspace Conflicts
In order to ensure the safety of manned aircraft and drones, systems must be developed to allow a drone to avoid conflicts with both manned and unmanned aircraft (drones). Ideally all drones would use sensors to both detect and avoid other aircraft. Systems must be light enough and consume little power in order to be suitable for use with small drones. These systems are advancing rapidly and will in very short order become standard equipment on commercial drones. In the fall of 2016 Echodyne announced the first successful demonstration of radar-equipped drone that could detect a light manned aircraft: http://echodyne.com/first-successful-airborne-detect-and-avoid-radar-test-on-a-small-drone/
Conflicts can also be avoided by segregating airspace. In most jurisdictions this would require a change in regulation that would allow a drone to operate exclusively in a specified area for a limited period of time. This could work very well to avoid conflicts in remote areas that see little air traffic.
Expanded Weather Capabilities
There are few drones on the market that can operate when the weather is non-cooperative. Most drones are grounded even in light rain or winds over about 35 km/hour. With DJI’s introduction of the Matrice 200 commercial operations can be expanded to include light rain and temperatures from -20° to 45° C. If commercial operators need a drone for even broader operating conditions they will have to invest in an Aeryon SkyRanger: https://www.aeryon.com/aeryon-skyranger
Should you wait?
I would not suggest that you wait to start using drones within the forest industry. There are plenty of good applications right now. However, with advances in technology and changes in the regulatory environment these uses will expand rapidly. Get started with what is available now so that your business can begin getting some experience with the application of this technology.
By Brian Saunders