Drone inscribes an oval of light above a tree at starry night in summer

Drones watch over our forests to aid conservation efforts

While it might sound like something out of a science-fiction show, we may be at the point where we can use robots to help patrol the skies and protect our precious forests.

Drones have become increasingly advanced in the last decade, their distinctive buzzing making them easily recognisable as they take to the skies. We’ve now reached a point where they can be used to aid the conservation of our protected forests.

Imperial College London recently reported that researchers had perfected a drone which could plant sensor darts onto trees, helping conservationists monitor their overall health. Not only that, but the sensors could help detect forest fires and monitor their movements.

The drones can also perch on branches like birds, allowing them to effectively act as mobile sensors.

A tale as old as the trees

For thousands of years, much of the UK was covered in forests. It is believed that if the majority of Great Britain was left without people, most of the land would be covered by mature Oak trees, one of the most prevalent breeds in the country. Scotland would be covered by pine forests, reflecting its differing topography and climate.

Human activity has led to an apparently insatiable appetite for wood over countless generations, resulting in massive deforestation. According to some estimates, deforestation in the UK was even occurring on a massive scale three thousand years ago, at the height of the Bronze Age.

One of the leading causes of deforestation in the UK was to make space for farmland. By 1919, the demands of an industrial economy had laid waste to most of the UK’s forests. In that year, just 5 per cent of the country was estimated to be wooded.

The two world wars played a major role in mass deforestation too, as the need for raw materials reached a peak. Fortunately, the Forestry Commission was eventually established, to monitor existing woodland, and subsequently, the forests have been able to stage a recovery.

British forests take root once more

Several hectares of fresh seeding and planting over the past few decades, thanks to the Forestry Commission, has allowed forests to recover. As much as 12.9 per cent of the UK’s landmass is now wooded.

There is some concern about planting slipping in recent years, but the government announced a target of planting 11 million trees by 2022, as part of its aim to ensure that the UK produces net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Our forests are the lungs of the Earth, and to make progress on protecting them, we need to conserve what we have, and also add fresh opportunities for forests to take root.

It’s a cumulative effort, and the work by Imperial College researchers adds to that. The drones they have used to monitor the health of trees are currently only operable manually. The hope is that they can perfect them further, creating autonomous drones to conduct their work without need of human operators.

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