Drones, sensors, and satellites are the future of trees, according to this Irish startup

For most us, the forest is a place to get away from technology. 4G signals fade and there’s no wifi hotspot to be found. It’s the perfect place to disconnect.

An Irish company sees the forest quite differently. Treemetrics, based in Cork, is using technology to make forests work better.

“These bigger trends are becoming real,” says CEO Enda Keane. “We are an example of real Internet of Things happening.”

Using drones, 3D scanners, sensors, satellites, and a lot of software, Treemetrics gives forest owners tools to get more wood from fewer trees.

Treemetrics works with sustainable forests for timbering, which act more like a tree plantation than a forest in a national park. They are essentially big farms with a crop that takes a long time to grow. By the way, you likely have a vested interest since your pension in all likelihood has investments in forests.

Before, we were stumped

Until Treemetrics came along, the way forest owners and lumber buyers decided which trees to cut and when was downright rudimentary.

According to Keane, a forester goes out and picks a sample of trees. He or she then wrap a measuring tape around the tree at “chest height” (around 1.3 meters above the ground) to find the circumference. Depending on the species of tree and location, guidebooks say whether it’s good to cut or not.

“Wait a second, Mr. Forest Owner,” jokes Keane. “Your system isn’t good enough.”

With that labor intensive process, which continues to this day, so much information is missing. Besides the thickness of the trunks, no one really could tell quality of the trees. Amazingly, forest owners often didn’t even know how many trees they own.

Keane and his co-founder Garret Mullooly both have backgrounds in forestry since their time at University College Dublin. They knew there was a better way.

Treemetrics has been around since 2005, but in the last few years, it’s reached remarkable heights, including a collaboration with the European Space Agency and the increased used of unmanned aerial vehicles (more commonly known as drones). 

Essentially, their software uses aerial footage and sensors on the ground to get a much better idea of a forest’s quality. With images stitched together, the Treemetrics software can count the number of trees and see the overall health of the forest.

Leaf behind the past

A couple years ago, Treemetrics became the first company to use a 3D scanner to measure a forest.

Keane says, “for the first time, we actually measured up the tree.”

That gives forest owners more leverage when selling the wood off to lumber companies. The better data also more trees won’t get cut unnecessarily, helpful for the environment. All told, this software and hardware makes sustainable forestry (planting trees for every one cut) more profitable.

In the coming year, Keane says Treemetrics will find ways to use big data more effectively.

“We finally have details on the actual cutting,” says Keane. “This is new data foresters never had.”

Keane says technology could help close their research loop. Treemetrics’ software predict the productivity of a forest, but sensors in the saws are rapidly proving those predictions are correct. More data makes for better predictions. Better predictions lead to smarter harvesting.

Growing the agtech industry

“Agtech has come alive,” says Keane. “Especially in the last year.”

While growing trees in a forest is different from farming wheat or cattle, Keane says his company falls in the larger category of “agriculture technology.”

“[Forestry] is a crop,” says Keane. “It’s another crop that’s competing for land for food.”

Data and sensors make all of these farms more productive, whether the crop grows in a season or over 20 years.

With a long history of farming (and the best dairy in this writer’s humble opinion), Ireland is home to several awesome startups working in the agriculture tech field.

Companies are creating innovative sensors to monitor all sorts of farm needs like Moocall for cattle, Blazer for bees, and HydraSure for horses.

“Finally, big data has arrived in farming,” says Keane.

Branching out

Treemetrics makes sense to come out of Ireland, but their focus is global. They recently hired several American foresters and partnered with larger international players to scale the company’s impact abroad.

In may, Treemetrics signed a €1.2 million deal with the European Space Agency to roll out satellite and sensor-based software to judge the health of forests.

Keane says drones are truly having a revolutionary impact on the industry, and Treemetrics is taking advantage of that change. With dropping prices, farmers can afford a €1,000 drone, a really powerful tool to understand his or her land from 100 meters up. Software turns the images captured on drones into useful information.

“It’s amazing and the world is changing,” says Keane. “With automation, it will put people under pressure jobs-wise. We see it more as an evolution of behaviour.”

By the way, as we approach the Christmas holiday, there’s a chance you’ve benefitted from Treemetrics’ solutions too. Keane says they worked with some Christmas tree farms to help count the trees using drones. Isn’t that just jolly?

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