Seeing the Forest Through the Trees: "LiDAR Captures Today for the Future"

As an integral part of our ecosystem, forests are invaluable by any measure. They not only provide a habitat for a myriad of wildlife but also play a crucial role in carbon sequestration, water purification, and soil stabilization. For centuries, foresters have ventured deep into the woods, meticulously documenting the forest's wonders. Their effort to study and understand these complex ecosystems continues to evolve as new technologies become available. The more we know, the better we can manage and preserve our forests.

Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) has been used to study forest ecology and management for decades. This technology provides high-resolution, three-dimensional information about the forest structure, enabling researchers to measure tree height, canopy density, and ground cover with remarkable accuracy. By harnessing the power of LiDAR, researchers can generate precise digital terrain models, assess forest health, estimate biomass and carbon sequestration, and develop strategies for sustainable forest management.

This case study shines a spotlight on a group of foresters who aim to explore the multifaceted impact of using LiDAR technology for forestry research. Following their footsteps, we'll learn about how LiDAR technologies reshaped their way of seeing the forests.


Connecting the LiDAR Points - An Acquired Taste

Acres of lush forests stretch across the West Coast of the United States, embodying a diverse ecosystem that is both complex and captivating. Nestled in the rich foliage of native tree species, including Willamette Valley Ponderosa Pines, white oaks, and thickets of mossy vine maples, is the state of Oregon. In the heart of this natural splendor, a pioneering team of foresters and researchers from Oregon State University are applying cutting-edge technology to study forests. Bogdan Strimbu, Associate Professor of Forest Engineering, Resources and Management, is one of the early adopters of LiDAR technology in forestry research.

A biometrician by trade, Prof. Strimbu researches forest inventory and growth modeling. LiDAR wasn't exactly love at first sight for him. It took time and patience, and obviously a lot of deep thinking to see the beauty in LiDAR data that might not be so apparent to others. But eventually, the richness of LiDAR data became an indispensable tool for Prof. Strimbu and he never looked back. Prof. Strimbu recalled: "You start seeing patterns when other people don't...I was mesmerized by the transition from old photogrammetry to the new photogrammetry, and photogrammetry to point cloud...If photogrammetry is doing so much cool stuff, how about going back to active sensors like LiDAR? This is how I got hooked on LiDAR."

Compasses, Maps, Logger's Tape, and Now, 3D Snapshots

Taking an inventory of massive forests used to be labor-intensive. Teams of foresters traversed the land to measure everything manually. “Forest inventory was done traditionally by going and cruising the land to measure diameter and heights," explained Prof. Strimbu. A two-person team could only cover so much distance and area in a day, and there is much to be desired.

LiDAR makes this process much faster. A single operator can cover significantly more ground in a fraction of the time. LiDAR's ability to provide a comprehensive census of the forest, capturing details of every tree, from the towering crown to small saplings, is a game-changer for forest management.

3D snapshots are much better descriptors of the forest than one-dimensional data, manually acquired, with one confidence interval. "It's literally like a 3D picture of what the forest looks like at a particular moment," the professor said. This wealth of data not only aids in current decision-making but also serves as a valuable resource for future research and analysis.

Catalyzing Progress: FJDynamics' Support Reshapes Research

Once Prof. Strimbu was convinced of the value of LiDAR data, quality and accessibility of this data became his next concern. Drawing from his experience with sensors from various manufacturers, Prof. Strimbu held high standards for data quality, service reliability, and ongoing support. While each brand of sensor offered its own set of advantages and drawbacks, the responsiveness and reliability of support services emerged as paramount considerations.

"The help that I got from FJDynamics is extremely good, and responses usually come within 24 hours", the professor noted. It's important for the professor and his team to receive information and support that solves real issues, pronto. This means researchers can focus on gleaning insights from the data and save hours, maybe days, in data capture and analysis. While responsiveness is essential, the real value lies in actionable solutions. After all, the team needs practical guidance that can be implemented, not just quick replies. "(FJD provides) solutions that are useful, not solutions that [ask us to] pay another $10,000, or those kinds of answers that are actually not solutions...If everything is like FJDynamics, everything will be cool."

Dennis Chung, Project Engineer at FJDynamics, demonstrating the new forestry function in FJD Trion Model for the OSU team.  

Beyond the Beam: LiDAR on the Cusp of Information Integration

As LiDAR continues to mature, it is expected to provide even more comprehensive insights into forest ecosystems. Prof. Strimbu sees LiDAR transitioning from a standalone technology to a crucial data source that composites big data.

An actionable improvement for LiDAR's application in forestry research is the combination of aerial and ground-level data, the professor suggests. "What I see going on is this merge of the two descriptors of the forest, one from below and one from above canopy...surveying a forest and large areas, I think the next step is working with terrestrial LiDAR and making the co-registration of the point clouds seamless."

Beyond data integration, Prof. Strimbu envisions LiDAR as the cornerstone of big data analysis in forestry. "Another direction I think LiDAR could go into is moving more into large data, combining multiple data sources and merging LiDAR with other remote sensing sources. For example, various coloring schemes that you can color the points according to various frequencies that are not a part of today's normal routine."

Due to its comprehensive description of the forest, LiDAR data can serve as the foundation for incorporating other remote sensing sources, such as satellite imagery. This data fusion would allow researchers to create a more comprehensive picture of forest health and composition. Imagine analyzing not just the canopy structure from LiDAR, but also overlaying information on plant health variations or potential infestations derived from satellite imagery – all within a single, powerful dataset.

As Prof. Strimbu eloquently puts it: "LiDAR is going to capture today for the future."

Learn more about FJD Trion P1 LiDAR Scanner here.
Learn more about FJD Trion S1 3D LiDAR Scanner here.
Learn more about FJD Trion Model Point Cloud Processing Software here.