Using Drones to Improve Weather Forecasting and Reduce Carbon Emissions

BY Zacc Dukowitz
18 August 2021

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been testing the use of LiDAR-equipped drones to improve our understanding of how forests and vegetation interact with the atmosphere.

The project is called CHEESEHEAD, a long acronym that stands for The Chequamegon Heterogeneous Ecosystem Energy-balance Study Enabled by a High-density Extensive Array of Detectors. (The name is also a joke—Cheeseheads are what Greenbay Packers fans call themselves.)

Despite the lengthy name, the ultimate goal of the research is straightforward: to find ways to reduce carbon emissions by improving our understanding of how the atmosphere interacts with plants.

The project aims to help improve weather forecasting by helping to understand how vegetation and forest management influence the atmosphere, which may play a role in helping decision makers to craft policies to more effectively target reductions in carbon emissions and climate change.

Routescene case study

The way LiDAR drones can help with this effort is by collecting high density point cloud data of the main tree species in an area.

A LiDAR system can detect and render a 3D visualization of an entire tree’s structure—from the canopy down to the ground—and this visualization of the forest’s canopy could be a key component in helping improve our understanding of how forests work, including how they help reduce carbon in the atmosphere.

Routescene’s LiDAR UAV

Tree Surveys for Atmospheric Studies

So far, researchers have only conducted one mission to test this approach to studying the way forests influence the atmosphere.

Using a LiDAR drone from Routescene, researchers flew several survey flights over a three day period in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, located in northern Wisconsin.

The surveys were made in the areas surrounding 11 large flux towers, which had been installed as part of the research project.

These flux towers are used by researchers to track carbon dioxide concentrations and exchanges between forests and the atmosphere. This data can help us better understand how forests are involved in reducing carbon in the atmosphere, and the complicated role trees play in that reduction.

A picture of a flux tower taken by CHEESEHEAD researchers

Using the LiDAR drone, researchers were able to capture dense 3D point cloud data of entire trees, all the way from the ground to the tree canopy.

Among these trees, six were distinctly identified by the researchers using the data they collected. These were Aspen, Pine, Poplar, Larch, Cedar, and Hardwood.

Tree structure point cloud of the main tree species around the flux towers

Although there were only two people involved in these flights, they covered some impressive ground. In just three days, they were able to collect data over an area of 2.6 square miles.

The Big Picture

LiDAR drones were just one of the tools researchers used in this project to test questions about how vegetation influences the weather and climate.

In 2019, when the LiDAR drone flights were made, a team of scientists and students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison used an array of methods for collecting data. These included:

  • Flux towers
  • Aircraft
  • Lasers
  • Weather balloons
  • Drones equipped with LiDAR

The flux towers helped researchers make carbon measurements across time and space “like never before,” according to those involved. These towers reach up to 100 feet in the air, allowing scientists to collect atmospheric data on things like temperature, humidity, and the presence of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

And the drones helped researchers by allowing them to create detailed 3D models of the forest canopy, showing the type, shape, and composition of the trees. All of this information is crucial to estimating and modeling the ways that the forest influences the atmosphere, especially when it comes to carbon reduction.

Overall, the researchers were looking not just to improve our understanding of how carbon reduction takes place in forests and other areas, but also to improve weather forecasting in general.

Using large eddy simulations and scaling experiments, one output of these studies could be an improved understanding of how to formulate weather and climate models—that is, a better way to predict the weather.

About Routescene’s LiDAR Drone

Routescene’s UAV LiDAR system comes ready to fly with a LiDAR payload.

It can be used to map sites that are hard to reach due to canopy cover or other obstructions. One of its standout features is that the system can collect data for up to 12 hours at a time, which could be extremely useful when out in the field trying to complete a project.

Routescene UAV LiDAR Systems

Routescene’s LiDAR drone also comes with a ground station that transmits RTK corrections and logs data for post-processing, a dummy payload to let you get proficient at flying without endangering the actual LiDAR system, and software to process your data and create high quality 3D models.

The researchers who used it in this forest-mapping mission reported being impressed by how well it performed.

Despite challenges, they were able to collect all the data they needed with the system, and create detailed 3D models of the six different types of trees present in that area.

The tall canopy of 20-30m height created difficult flying conditions . . . The Routescene system worked flawlessly, and we achieved all we had planned . . . We were particularly impressed with the density of overlapping flight lines and the mapping of the forest structure.

– Christian Andresen, Researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

As noted above, this was the first time these researchers had conducted surveys of tree canopy with a LiDAR-equipped drone.

It will be interesting to hear more about their findings, and to see if this approach to mapping forests leads to improved weather modeling and better policies for reducing carbon emissions.

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