A challenging site for drones

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WFCA Annual Meeting 2023

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What About Drones?

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VICTORIA B.C. -- Feb 2, 2023 - John Innes, Forestry Planning, said drones can plant trees 150 times faster and 10 times cheaper than tree planters. "Tree planting is the same for the past 4,000 years. Same technology, humans. There are now terrestrial tree planting machines that work for easy terrain. These are not designed for cutblocks in the forests. But there are machines that multitask things like scarification, injecting fertilizer and planting the trees."

A man named Jack Walters designed a propellant system to shoot seedlings into the forest floor. It's a process that can be seen in nature. Nature does it in mangrove seeds that sprout into plants and literally plant themselves by an aerial process into the mud below by falling. But dropping living seedlings into a slash pile on a clear cut will not penetrate to the soil. 

Aerial broadcasting of seeds is done in Australia on sites where the surface has been burned off, and these are distributed by small plane or helicopter. They drop seeds, or drop pelletized seeds, or drop pellitized germinated seeds, depending on the soil conditions, and now they are firing pellitized germinated seeds into the ground.

Seeding drones are used to spread 40,000 seeds a day in bushfire areas in Australia.

A company called Droneseed USA uses drones with LIDAR (an acronym of "light detection and ranging" or "laser imaging, detection, and ranging". LIDAR is a method for determining ranges by targeting an object or a surface with a laser https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lidar) and aerial imagery into post wildfire landscapes for analyzing soil quality and determining which seeds go where. These methods over-use seeds.

Dendra Systems says they can spread millions of seeds in a few hours, and predict the planting of 500 billion trees by 2060: 120 seedpods per minute, pre-germinated seeds, using pressurized air.

AirSeed Technologies, efficient at post planting surveys. They can go back and survey for re-seeding and predict planting 100 million trees by 2024.

Looking at all these possibilities, however, planting a seed doesn't mean planting a tree.

FlashForest claims 1 billion trees by 2028, operating in B.C., Alberta, and Ontario. The company is using drones on post-burn sites, post-harvest sites, and grassy areas. It seems the post-burn sites are best and high severity burn sites are the best sites for drones.

Timing is everything in these planting operations, which now operate earlier in the season, depending on weather. They have been successful in areas with reasonably high precipitation. Wet summers are better.

Grassy areas are not effective, grass competes too successfully with the tree seeds, so they use pellets, and collect significant quantities of wild seeds, which seeds are then encased in a mixture (proprietary) in encasements, including moisture retention material. The germination rate is quite high, said Innes.

Drones are constantly improving, and the technology of drones tends to be evolving rapidly, with planting capacity increasing progressively at a rate of 1000 percent capacity growth over the past couple of years. They can distribute 100,000 seed pods per day depending on number of drones deployed.

Planting drones now carry LIDAR and other technology. Early drones had smaller capacity, 80 pods, now they have the capacity for a million pods per day using three operational drones. The pods are fired into the ground, velocity and height are variables. Current drones fly high, but in the future the drones will fly lower with obstacle avoidance technology.

They geolocate every pod fired. Germination success is closely monitored by surveys. Top-up flights will be undertaken at sites with low success rates. The goal is to produce growth out of 20 percent of the seed, wasting 4 out of 5.

The question is, will drones replace tree planters? 

Drones are cheaper and faster and do replacement planting both faster and easier, but mortality rates are higher. Drones can work in areas where tree planters have problems, steep sites, high bug areas, and sites with health issues like fire areas with ash. There are sites in Alberta where drones are operating in the north because it's hard for tree planters to get in there.

Drones are catching up and AI is moving things ahead, LIDAR on drones is one of the amazing advancements. The pellets and germination success rates are improving. But there will always be room for tree planters, says Innes.

Tree planting involves intuitive practices by planters, and these sensitivities are being emphasized by drone companies. Drones are dropping seeds obtained from the wild, while in tree planting, improved seed stock comes from nurseries. Two hundred kilos of wild seeds were collected by FlashForest this year. There is no apparent problems with seed supply at present. B.C. has seed zones, and A class seed is expensive. Seed lines up with the area being planted and seed transfer rules apply to drone planters just as they do to tree planters. "We need to make sure the seed rules are being followed." Wastage could be an issue while trees produce huge volumes of seeds.

Drones are mainly deployed to try to get forest cover back into place. They aren't being used to make harvestable forests at present. 

It will become a numbers game, and drones will reforest areas affordably that might not be planted otherwise.

Optimium sites for drones are post fire sites, whereas cut sites are less drone worthy with all the slash impeding successful seed placements. "Drones could still surprise us," says John Betts, "but don't turn in your shovels just yet, planters."


Feb. 1, 2023 - VICTORIA BC - In the afternoon on day one of the WFCA 2023 Annual Meeting, elected chief Comox Nation Rob Everson discussed the background leading to the need for Indigenous Reconciliation. "Having a true understanding of Indigenous people, we will acknowledge reconciliation and move forward."

Everson began by discussing three events dated 1763, 1867, and 1876. 

First was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, as issued by King George III on 7 October 1763. "It established the basis for governing the North American territories surrendered by France to Britain in the Treaty of Paris, 1763, following the Seven Years’ War." https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/royal-proclamation-of-1763.

Second was the establishment of the nation of Canada in 1867. "The BNA Act was enacted by the British Parliament on 29 March 1867. It came into effect on 1 July 1867. It provided for the union (confederation) of three of the five British North American colonies into a federal state with a parliamentary system modelled on that of Britain." https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/confederation-1867

Third was the Indian Act, 1876, under Liberal Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, which, "dismantled traditional systems of governance and imposed external controls — in the form of local Indian agents and the federal bureaucracy of the Department of Indian Affairs on individuals and communities." https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/indian-act

"The Indian Act separated people from the land," Everson said, "It is law that pertains to Indigenous life on-reserve, nothing off-reserve, and nothing to do with culture. How Canada has treated Indigenous people in the past 150 years," is very bad. Of course the Indian Act still exists, and people are still separated from the land, he said.

"There is progress, for example Babine Lake in northern B.C. had land (200 square kilometres) returned this week. All Indigenous people were managed through land, and mining, purposely, because it was all about land," and while this continues practically unabated to this day, "Big deals are now occurring to reconcile in giving back territory." Nevertheless, he said, the Indian Act is the biggest barrier to communication with the rest of Canada."

Everson explained that, with the creation of reserves, and the intense colonialization measures that ensued, "the family names disappeared. Colonization removed Indigenous names. Potlatch governance (west coast, mostly coastal nations) was outlawed in 1884 and this carried over into the Indian Act. The Potlatch ban wiped out our conduct of our societies. This ban was from 1884 to 1951 and lasted through three generations. Our society was negatively transformed away from its traditional governance."

Next, Everson discussed Residentials Schools, operated by the federal government and its agents (various Christian churches) from 1886 to 1996, which took children away each year for 100 years. This was devastating to the social fabric of the communities. "Indigenous languages were erased by schools. Regalia was outlawed (until the 1960s). Indigenous people were not allowed to form political organizations. It was even illegal for Indigenous people to hire lawyers (from 1927 to 1951). The people were prohibited from bars and pool halls. Indigenous students were prohibited from learning their traditional histories."

Indigenous people were denied the right to vote until 1960, and, Everson said, speaking frankly, "The Indian Act is a piece of legislation created to subjugate a people."

Everson took questions from the audience throughout his address, such as, "What can companies do to support reconcilation?"

He replied, "One of the things we do is look for partners to work with building the capacity to manage our traditional forest areas." Working with Indigenous people is about building relationships to work collaboratively, with any form of business, including the forestry sector. Discussions starting at square one may last years, and these discussions are essential to move forward with reconciliation.

An audience member asked about the issue of competing land claims that are made by First Nations, and he replied, "Dealing with conflicting claims came up with treaty negotiations in more recent history."

As for putting Indigenous people into the workforce, the Canadian society fails to recognize the family nature of Indigenous relationships, which the people have always relied upon heavily, and support systems are missing about how to engage the Indigenous community at its level of priorities. Change must come."

Ultimately, the Indian Act must probably be repealed.

Earlier in the day, the focus of WFCA's annual meeting was on safety in the tree planting (silviculture) industry.

"Technical Evacuation Advanced Aero Medical Society (TEAAM) is an advanced life support Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) non-profit that responds to remote, austere wilderness and industrial settings outside of the scope and capability of the British Columbia Ambulance Service." https://www.teaam.ca/

In the 9:45 am – 10:00 am portion of the program today, TEAAM gave an update on their expanded service range, and shared some lessons learned from the aero-rescue world. They described how the mission volume keeps rising, now comprised of 50% trauma responses and 50% medical responses to events such as heart attacks and related events as well as Covid-19 and others. Over the course of the TEAAM involvement with tree planters, the percent of responses has equaled out, whereas in the beginning the TEAAM responses were primarily for trauma incidents. TEAAM also conducts international missions.

"We are there to take peoples' pain away."

The business of funding TEAAM operations in the silviculture sector comes through an insurance program that costs $40 per person per year and protects the workers at work and play, while out in the remote fields, on the job. Most rescues cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per mission. Response time to launch to rescue? 15 minutes in some areas, 20 minutes on daytime submissions, or longer out of Vancouver if it is a nighttime response requested, perhaps as long as 1.5 hours, weather dependent.

At about 10:30 am to 11:15 am, the discussion changed to Health and Safety in the Post-Covid workplace. Forestry Safety Advocate, Jordan Tesluk, revisited issues related to preventing communicable illness at work, which was already a priority before COVID-19 and Tesluk talked about key issues and new directions for safety in forestry and silviculture now that the emergency-phase of the pandemic has passed.

Tesluk asked a number of rhetorical questions which he addressed. "What does a culture of cleanliness mean to your workplace?" He described the environment of safety and health as well as injury abatement being something to address on-going. He soon gravitated to discussing the deployment of drone technology which has been used on replanting sites to enhance safety. Drone surveys, "are  making sure everybody comes home safely, all these technological deployments have increased both safety and productivity in the planting sites."

The dialogue transitioned to discussion about GPS units in crew trucks. The silviculture industry in B.C. began using this technology in 2013. By now, the data from GPS has revealed some interesting fact. For example, old drivers are the last to adapt to the rules in driving crew trucks. GPS makes it much easier to manage personnel through check-ins and reduces the worries about lost persons because the GPS removes confusion about personnel and their whereabouts. Also, GPS has proven good for investigations, wherein it monitors vehicle speeds and other negative events such as erratic driving, or road incidents, or even vehicle breakdowns.  GPS equipment reports seatbelt use, hard cornering, excessive idling. 

The moderator noted that success is in how you implement it. "You need to monitor, but show good judgement in not setting unreasonable limits, don't be creeping on them, don't use it to over-discipline. GPS is a coaching tool. Don't be big brother, recognize that alerts can be wrong, excessive discipline turns off ears, and be aware that there are limits to the use of technology."

Mike Sexton BC Forest Safety Council  discussed the importance of investigations. "Lack of clear policies impedes proper investigations of accidents leading to injuries. Documentation is essential, and crew leaders need to know what to report on, such as incidents and accidents, and it's a process that needs to be followed.

"Weak investigations are due to a lack of training, a lack of commitment, and inadequate implementation of policies, including the inadequate filing of formal documents."

Sexton described a process where inadequate root cause analysis meets inadequate evidence collection, because immediate causes need to be distinguished from root causes. "If you skip steps and don't follow the forms and policies, investigations get fuzzy." Furthermore, inadequate corrective actions lead to weak investigations in the future. Inadequate competency assessments put people in a weak position as to conducting appropriate investigations."

Above all, safety training programs have to be done with qualified trainers.

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Chief Rob Everson, Comox, speaking at WFCA Feb 1 2023

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