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Drone Technology Making Forestry Faster, Safer, More Efficient

Imagine a drone, hovering high above your home. A package is released from its clutches and gently drifts to the ground, aided by a parachute. And just like that, the package you ordered only 30 minutes ago is delivered to your yard. The scenario sounds like something from a science fiction movie, but recently, e-commerce giant Amazon was granted a U.S. patent for this innovation.

Despite recent buzz, drones are not a new technology. In fact, Nikola Tesla invented the first radio-controlled boat back in 1898. Since then, drones have evolved and are commonly used commercially by the agriculture, construction, real estate, law enforcement and applied science fields. Today drones are even a popular pastime for adults and children alike.

Domtar, a leading producer of pulp, paper and personal care products, also harnesses the power of drone technology to complete critical forestry tasks.

“The use of drones is absolutely the biggest advance I’ve seen in our business in a long time,” said Doug Teale, Sustainability Manager at Domtar’s Ashdown, Arkansas mill, which produces uncoated paper and premium fluff pulp used in products such as baby diapers. “They improve our efficiencies, the accuracy of our calculations, they save us time and keep our foresters safer. The impact has been tremendous, and we’re excited to share best practices with others across the Domtar network.”

At Ashdown, the technology was first put to use in 2016. Now, two drones monitor local forests for diseased trees and invasive species. The Ips beetle, for example, is a common pest that can burrow under tree bark and tunnel through pine and spruce trees causing damage that can kill the trees. Using drones, foresters can now quickly check for infestations. What used to be a half day’s work is now accomplished in 20 minutes, Teale said.

Flying high above the canopy, drones can easily spot infestations like this damage done by the Ips beetle.

Improvements in speed and accuracy are also being seen at Domtar where drone-assisted inventory calculations are produced with exceptional accuracy. Previously, survey crews spent up to a half day measuring massive wood chip piles that eventually become paper or personal care products. Now, drones take photos of the wood piles, the images are uploaded to a computer that does the math, and the entire process is completed in half an hour.

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Domtar drones are also used to check the success of forest growth — from the time of seedling plantings to final harvest. Before drones, Domtar’s foresters walked the land to check on plantings, record survival rates and coverage. Now, images are captured via the drones and observations can be made in mere minutes.

Drones can be used to quickly determine facts like coverage and survival rate of seedlings.

The time saved is crucial. In 2012, Domtar examined options to increase the supply of Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) certified wood fiber in the Southeastern United States, where land ownership patterns have historically made forest certification a challenge. This led to the creation of the Four States Timberland Owners Association (FSTOA) by the Ashdown mill. The FSTOA set a new standard for providing small landowners with simple, useful tools to achieving FSC certification, and the group achieved amazing success working with small landowners — a group that is notoriously difficult to reach. The FSTOA now manages more than a half-million acres of forestland. As a nod to the highly successful program, the Ashdown drones were affectionately named FSTOA 1 and FSTOA 2.

Domtar’s Ashdown mill uses two DJI Phantom 4 Pro Drones to aid in its forestry operations, named after its successful smallholder outreach program.

The benefits provided by drones have led to their use at other Domtar facilities, including the Windsor, Quebec mill, with the potential to expand further throughout the system.

At the Windsor mill, which also uses other high-tech harvesting techniques, drones calculate wood chip piles, monitor forest health and assist with nutrient assessments. Drones will soon play an even more critical role at Windsor as new dangers emerge.

“Drones are proving to be an invaluable tool in forestry,” said André Gravel, Fiber Manager at Domtar’s Windsor mill. “They save time, improve efficiencies and help safeguard employees. Drones will have added usefulness in the very near future because the Windsor mill is now in the radius of the Emerald Ash Borer. That infestation proved to be quite damaging, so we anticipate the drones will help us work proactively to combat the problem with great efficiency.”

To learn more about Domtar’s use of drone technology and view footage of the drones in action, click here.

Dan Persica leads the effort to create interesting content about Domtar's sustainability work and company leadership in the space. With nearly 10 years of experience in the forest products industry, he is the driving force behind Domtar’s award-winning supply… [Read more about Daniel Persica]

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