British Columbia is recovering from a summer fire season more devastating than any in living memory. Now researchers are using drones to carry out damage assessments from above to better understand the behaviour of wildfires.
As firefighters continue to battle against relentless blazes in California, researchers further north are taking advantage of the respite that comes with colder temperatures.
A University of British Columbia forestry professor and a group of students are taking to the skies above BC’s worst-hit areas to discover more about how and why the 2017 fire season got so out of control.
Leading the research is Dr Nicholas Coops. He has described aerial footage of the charred remains of the Alex Fraser Research forest near Williams Lake and the Malcolm Knapp Research Forest near Vancouver as “like nothing we’ve ever seen before”.
Using drones to understand wildfires
Both forests were hit hard by fires in the summer. Now Coops and his team of researchers are trying to learn more about how and why the fires progressed as they did.
From above, they are able to chart the progress of the fire, spot areas that burned at higher temperatures than others and discover any parts of the forest that might be salvaged.
Traditionally, this job would have been done on foot or with the help of satellites and manned aircraft. But each of those methods comes with drawbacks and impracticalities. Drones, by contrast, offer an imaging solution that’s easy to deploy, cost-effective and, most important in this specific type of research, high resolution.
“We can see every live tree, every dead tree. We can see the scorch on the trees. We can see the pattern of mortality that we get across the stand,” said Coops.
The high-resolution images are being used to create three-dimensional models of the forests in question.
This is because the data captured isn’t simply from above. Drones are nimble enough to operate close to the ground and fly among the trees, meaning that minute details can be captured and added to the three-dimensional model’s bigger picture.
“We’re able to see even centimetre differences on branches and leaves, based on these types of three-dimensional views of the forest,” Coops said.
— UBC (@UBC) December 19, 2017
Looking to the future
The research team has conducted the aerial investigation with the help of FYBR Solutions, a forestry intelligence company based in Vancouver.
Alex Graham, a Masters’ student working on the project, believes the data captured can help mitigate the risks of wildfires in the future and keep tabs on a forest’s recovery.
“Some of the other applications outside of wildlife management would be regeneration assessment – so [looking at] young trees and seeing how they’re growing in time. It’s also useful in monitoring the progress of harvests,” he said.
“Just like a lot of industries today, big data and machine learning are key to how businesses are going to be optimal in the future,” said Patrick Crawford, CEO of FYBR Solutions.
“Drones are another tool to help gather huge amounts of data to better understand how our forests grow and how the world is changing.”