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NHRI launches first-of-its-kind drone system

October 28, 2022  By Mitacs

Photo: Annex Business Media.

Thanks to the ground-breaking work of an applied research hub in Edmundston, N.B., with the help of university students, foresters in Atlantic Canada are finally able to see the forest for the trees — literally.

The Northern Hardwoods Research Institute Inc., launched in 2012 to stimulate innovation in Canada’s multibillion-dollar forest products sector, is on a mission to modernize forest management by developing cutting-edge tools for woodlot owners, harvesters and forest professionals. Now, their work to digitally transform a centuries-old industry is not only helping to secure the future of Canada’s hardwood wood supply – used in furniture, cabinets and flooring – but is also enabling foresters work smarter by allowing them to precisely learn the details of every single tree, before they ever set foot in a forest.

The research is being propelled through an internship program funded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada and provides students with unique opportunities to work on real-world, leading-edge projects.

In order to advance its newest innovation — a breakthrough system that uses drones equipped with light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, along with big data and artificial intelligence (AI), to precisely map forest sections in 3D so optimal forest management practices can be used — NHRI is working with Mitacs interns, who bring top talent and creativity to the project.


“We can no longer rely on old ways of doing things, where we assume every forester or operator of a harvesting machine knows the forest in precise detail,” said Gaetan Pelletier, NHRI executive director. “We still need people on the ground, but they need to be empowered with better information.”

The drone system — one of the first in the world to be used at an operational scale — is part of NHRI’s multi-year digital transformation project called Digital Timberlands 20/20, aimed at closing gaps in the emerging field of precision forestry. As the drone equipped with the special laser scanning technology flies over a forest, it penetrates the canopy to collect thousands of data points to describe the geographical area, making it possible to extract precise, single-tree metrics.

For the first time, the technology is providing foresters with a highly detailed, digital view of a section of forest so that they can optimally manage it, using the data to simulate harvest treatments on a computer model, for example, before they’re conducted in the field. The approach means overall yields are increased, a larger proportion of high-grade timber products are secured, and long-term sustainability of desired species like sugar maples, yellow birch and red oak is ensured. It also means that the hardwood resource can be managed sustainably.

“The reality is, we’re no longer getting the hardwood yields we rely on to sustain our forest products value chain,” said Pelletier, noting that the sector is crucial to Canada’s economy. Unlike softwood trees such as spruce and fir used in the construction industry that are easier to sustain, hardwood trees are far more complex to manage, he explained, because they take longer to grow and require light, soil and other resources to be carefully manipulated so that desired species will thrive.

“We know also these desired hardwood species are threatened due to climate change,” he added. “If we don’t intervene now and arm foresters with the upstream technology they need to make better forest management predictions and decisions, the entire value chain will be impacted.”

Digital transformation yields bottom line results

NHRI is currently working with more than 25 small operators in Atlantic Canada and Quebec to apply its innovative solutions in the field. Early results indicate that by precisely pinpointing which trees to harvest and when, productivity can increase by as much as 15 percent and the cost of producing raw products can be reduced by as much as 10 percent, giving Canadian foresters a competitive edge in a global market that’s facing similar hardwood challenges.

Research support from Mitacs interns is critical to the technology’s ongoing development and commercialization, said Pelletier. To date, the institute has worked with six Mitacs interns, half of whom accepted full-time positions with the organization when their schooling was complete.

“As a small research centre located in a remote place like Edmundston, we’d be hard pressed to acquire the expertise we need to advance our solutions without Mitacs’ support,” Pelletier explained. “The Mitacs formula works great for us. We’re connected to graduate and post-graduate students and all of a sudden, they find a purpose for their work.”

One of those interns is Bastien Vandendaele, a PhD student in remote sensing at Université de Sherbrooke, who has been working on the drone project since 2016 with the support of Mitacs. Vandendaele, who is currently focused on developing new workflows for the data collected, said working on such a large-scale project has given him real-world experience in the research world, allowing him to put his research into practice and strengthen his knowledge and skills. “It has also been an excellent opportunity to develop teamwork skills and better understand the needs of stakeholders in the wood industry,” he said. “The internship gave me an unprecedented opportunity to transfer from the academic sector to the forestry sector and create practical solutions that are being implemented by those in the industry, which is very rewarding.”

As NHRI works to commercialize its drone system, it’s looking to grow its 14-member team by a third with a particular focus on acquiring AI and big data skill sets. As it works to digitize the forest products sector, the institute hopes to attract more bright minds who will be eager to think outside the box.

“This isn’t just about capturing some very cool data with our drones,” said Pelletier. “It’s about bringing next-generation solutions to an industry that is poised to face serious challenges without them, and sometimes we’re willing to go out on a limb to do it.”

Student, small business opportunities

“Mitacs is proud to support organizations of all shapes and sizes as they aim to unlock the equation to scaling up their R&D efforts by using the talent and expertise from the post-secondary sector,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn, noting that Mitacs acts as a matchmaker of sorts, helping to fill the country’s labour pool gap by placing talented students in positions that fit their skills.

With Statistics Canada reporting an all-time low ratio in unemployment-to-job vacancy in every province, organizations are hungry for top talent. At the same time, a recent survey by Mitacs showed that students lack confidence in certain skills identified as key by industry, including team management (19 per cent) and project management (24 per cent).

In response, Mitacs is beefing up efforts to place as many interns as possible in needed positions, said Hepburn.

“Internships provide students with the opportunity to apply academic knowledge to problem-solving skills that are critical for the future workforce, experience which they just can’t get in the classroom,” said Hepburn. “With more jobs being filled by capable students, we’re helping to improve Canada’s productivity and homegrown innovation. It’s a win-win for students, post-secondary institutions, small businesses, industry, and the country’s prosperity as a whole.”

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