Seeing the wood for the trees: using tech to combat deforestation

Deforestation continues to significantly outstrip our efforts to converse: illegal logging, land clearance and habitat destruction contribute to a net loss of around 6 billion trees a year. Governments, institutions and businesses are increasingly turning to digital technologies to help track timber supply chains, monitor illegal activity and fires, and support habitat restoration.

The use of remote-sensing technology has become the backbone of worldwide efforts to quickly, reliably and routinely assess trends in deforestation. Since the 1970s, NASA’s Landsat series of satellites has provided high-resolution imagery of changes to tropical forests over time. Today, a convergence of satellite technologies and analytical capabilities make it possible to monitor deforestation in near real time of days, weeks and months, rather than years. This enables alerts to be issued giving regulators a far better opportunity to catch illegal loggers.

Companies are also turning to satellites to monitor their forest-based commodity supply chains and to allow them to have more confidence in their commitments to avoid deforestation. For example Nestle this year announced that it was implementing Starling, a satellite-based service developed by Airbus and The Forest Trust, to monitor all of its global palm oil supply chains. The company has pledged to ensure that none of its products will be associated with deforestation by 2020.

Others are using digital technologies to thwart illegal logging by opening up transparency of the timber supply chain. For example, UK and USA-based start-up Earth Observation Inc uses a combination of smartphone and satellite technology in its digital traceability system d to give more transparency in the first mile of the supply chain of timber and forest products. Here the auditors are the smallholders and farmers themselves: it is they that track the location of logs transported from the forest to the mill, raising alerts when there is suspicious activity.

UK-start up BioCarbon Engineering meanwhile is focused on forest restoration. During the historic Paris climate summit, governments committed to restore 350 million hectares of degraded land – equivalent to an area the size of India accommodating 300 billion trees - by 2030. Meeting this through existing methods alone will be challenging.

Biocarbon Engineering has piloted a new approach which it thinks could be a game-changer. Using a combination of drones and machine learning to replace labour-intensive and expensive tree planting with a fully automated process which could leader to a cheaper and faster means to reforest. It uses satellite and drone-collected data to determine the best locations to plant and planting drones fire seedpods into the ground with pressurised air at a rate of 120 seedpods per minute. Once scaled up, the company is aiming to plant 500 billion seeds by 2060.

These are just a handful of examples of the exciting innovation underway which has the potential to transform the way in which we monitor, audit and respond to the causes of deforestation.

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