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This startup hopes to aid climate action initiatives with LiDAR drones

Treeswift has equipped autonomous drone swarms with LiDAR sensors to monitor, inventory, and map forests

Courtesy: NICFI

Forests play a crucial role in maintaining the Earth’s ecosystem. They are one of the biggest parts of the climate solution puzzle. But did you know that the world loses an area of tropical forests the size of a football pitch every 6 seconds?

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the consumption of tropical timber by the US and other industrial countries plays a significant role in this tropical deforestation. Add to that the fact that tropical wildfires, which used to be quite rare in the past, are also increasing with the rise in deforestation, and you’re left tiptoeing on the precipice of climate catastrophe.

Foresters and environmental researchers say these threats are further complicated because they lack the quantitative information needed to make important decisions to preserve the forests. This is why Norway is funding a $44 million high-res satellite map of the world’s forests. And this is why Treeswift, a spin-off company from Penn Engineering’s GRASP Lab, is equipping swarms of autonomous drones with LiDAR sensors to monitor, inventory, and map timberland.

What does Treeswift do?

Treeswift’s drones navigate through forests independently, collecting images of the land. Once the data is ready for post-processing, deep learning technologies are leveraged to segment the trees from the point clouds. The four engineering students who have co-founded Treeswift have used a custom virtual reality program to train the machine learning algorithms.

The resulting output is a high-resolution 3D reconstruction that displays even the finest details of every tree structure. These 3D maps can be analyzed for precise, quantifiable measurements of any given forest’s biomass.

Treeswift is currently focusing on three major target applications for this data:

  • Inventory calculation for the timber industry

  • Mapping forests for preservation

  • Measuring forest biomass and fuel to prevent the spread of wildfires

Steven Chen, co-founder and CEO of Treeswift, says, “We are trying to build a general system that solves a lot of problems. Our main customer base right now is industrial forestry, but we are looking into opportunities that would enable us to work in wildfire forest management as well.”

Drones vs Satellite Imagery

But how relevant is drone mapping of forests in a day and age when countries like Norway are making high-res satellite data of forests accessible to researchers anyway?

Guilherme Vicentim Nardari, a Penn Engineering alumnus and a doctoral student at the Center for Robotics at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, explains: “In Brazil, deforestation is a major issue. Images from satellites can’t tell the full story of what’s going on in a given area, and sometimes trees are cut down selectively, meaning only some are cut down while others remain. You can’t tell this is happening from satellite images, but with drone images, you can.”

Courtesy: Treeswift

Moreover, as Chen points out, with satellite images you can only see the canopy or the tops of the trees. “You need to be able to see below that, to the surface fuel and growth as well. That’s why I believe robotics can fill the gap in data collection for the forest service.”

In any case, using drones will be a huge improvement over the current manual practices of gathering forest data in the US, wherein foresters go out into the woods, earmark samples of land, calculate the trees by hand using a tape measure, and extrapolate the sample numbers into estimates about forest size, biomass, et al.

“With drones, we can go out and collect and process data into maps and metrics. Then, we can use AI to figure out what’s actually going on in the timberlands. We can make predictive models that would tell you if you took X action, you would likely have Y result,” Chen sums up.


Ishveena Singh is a versatile journalist and writer with a passion for drones and location technologies. In the last 12 years, she has worked with both mainstream media organizations (Miami Herald International, Times of India, Microsoft MSN) and dedicated geospatial technology media (Geospatial World, Geoawesomeness).

With a deep understanding of content marketing and social media, Ishveena also helps private companies (DJI, Aerodyne Group, Terra Drone Corporation) to generate qualified leads through useful and timely content.

When she is not making magic at her desk, you are likely to find Ishveena on road trips, eating her way through life, or binge-watching TV shows. Connect with her today on LinkedIn and Twitter


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