A Thunder Bay natural resource
consulting firm is taking to the skies with the purchase of its first
unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for aerial imaging and mapping
Sumac Forest Information Services took
delivery of its Lancaster Hawkeye MK III over the Christmas holidays
and began test flights of the vehicle produced by Precision Hawk of
“We’ve been looking at this
technology for about a year and a half,” said Todd Domney, one of
three coowners of the 19-employee firm established in 1996.
Adding the UAV is a part of a larger
technological shift for the company which began collecting
ground-based data to support forest management and now has been
increasingly moving into high-end digital mapping.
“Getting into the aerial imaging is
something new for us,” said Domney. “We were a bunch of timber
cruisers and we were very good at it but the industry downturn and
the shift in focus with the Ministry of Natural Resources back into
the inventory business with the EFRI (enhanced forest resource
inventory) program has really changed the focus for us.”
At an industry trade show, Sumac
started discussions with two UAV makers before they settled on the
Precision Hawk as their vehicle of choice.
Formerly known as Winehawk Labs,
Precision Hawk had been extensively working in the Niagara Peninsula,
flying the vineyards and orchards to monitor crops.
“In chatting with these guys I soon
realized that precision agriculture stuff has a huge crossover into
forestry and other kinds of applications,” said Domney.
Weighing three pounds and measuring
three feet from nose to tail, the aircraft is described as a “fly
and forget” platform.
A fully autonomous vehicle, it can be
simply hand-launched by a user and programmed to fly a boxed area of
interest. An internal intelligence and guidance system assesses
weather conditions and wind direction and the aircraft sets up its
own flight pattern to gather the appropriate data that can be
transferred to a software platform.
With a price tag of $40,000, Domney
said it’s reasonably affordable compared to other high-end systems.
Sumac’s UAV is outfitted with a
camera and an 18.5 mm lens for high-resolution photography.
If clients demand it, Domney said, they
can attach Lidar, hyper-spectral, visual and thermal imaging devices
and a host of other sensors.
The company plans to hold
demonstrations for clients in the spring.
Technology has changed the whole
dynamics of how forest stands are quantified and what value can be
placed on fibre.
Domney said the UAV brings a new
dimension to data gathering with a “just-in-time” element to very
traditional forestry-based aerial mapping applications.
Rather than mapping forest depletions
(harvesting activity) once a year, “with this technology, you can
fly the day you finish harvesting.” “Because it’s high
resolution, you can measure how much biomass is left on the site.”
There’s been a global explosion in
the use of UAVs for a variety of applications, but Domney said for
now they’re taking baby steps.
“We’re starting with the animal
that we know which is forestry. But we’ve also done some testing
over aggregate pits and we’ve chatted with a few people involved in
run-of- the-river power developments and right-of-ways. There’s
lots of interest in it but it’s sort of about getting our feet
firmly grounded and getting started.”
Domney said it’s spawned an internal
company discussion on what the possibilities might be in mining,
engineering and surveying.
“We want to get into all that stuff,”
said Domney. “I have a geomatics guy saying that the technology we
have is the tip of the iceberg that we want to apply to many things.
“Hydro developments and corridors
will all get flown for engineering purposes, and aggregates and
miners want accurate volumes of their stockpiles on what they’re
taking out of the ground every month.”
Domney said he’s not sure they want
to diversify and branch out to become an engineering or GIS company.
“I think it’s important to stay
focused on what you know and do well. If we can take the technology
and apply it to other sectors and build it up that way I think that’s
an exciting thing.”