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Luiz Carlos Estraviz Rodriguez

Professor of Economics and Forestry Planning at Esalq-USP


Digitalization evolution and trends

I had the pleasure of moderating the Digital Silviculture panel, at the 5th Brazilian Silviculture Meeting in Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, which brought together executives and managers from large forestry enterprises. In an almost two-hour debate, we discussed the trajectory and future of Digital Forestry in Brazil. Initially, it was up to me to do a quick historical contextualization.

Afterwards, colleagues took turns in three rounds of discussion, sharing first their visions, then their experiences and, finally, the challenges that we will have to overcome. Inspired by these testimonies and the knowledge shared, here I will summarize the themes discussed in this panel.

The last five decades of forestry and silviculture management in Brazil have been characterized by an ocean of opportunities for forest plantation managers. The common denominator of all these opportunities was the decision-making process about “how, where, when and how much” to plant. This process demands a large volume of data and, mainly, a great effort of interpretation and synthesis. In the last 50 years, We literally had to surf large waves of innovation that, grouped by decade, can be presented as follows:

1 . The emergence of personal computers in the 1980s brought computing power into homes and workplaces, allowing anyone to process data, create documents, and run computer programs. This made electronic spreadsheets, geographic information systems and mathematical optimization popular. These tools have improved forest management and planning, the integration of spatial data with cadastral and forestry data. Forest managers were then able to better analyze and visualize the data, making informed decisions about harvesting, conservation and land use.

2. The invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s allowed easy access to information and communication on a global scale, revolutionizing how data began to be accessed, shared and processed. The integration of computers into the internet has facilitated access to remote sensing data and relational databases. This decade saw an acceleration in the adoption of remote sensing technologies with passive sensors, such as multispectral sensors, and active sensors, such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). These technologies have enabled accurate and frequent monitoring of forests in real time, providing valuable information for sustainable forest management practices and early detection of potential threats.

3. Broadband Internet in the 2000s popularized fast and reliable Internet access. It enabled massive data transfer, facilitating real-time communication, paving the way for various streaming services and cloud-based applications and solutions. The new resources enhanced mobile data collection, production tracking and the integration of forestry systems with corporate data management systems. Smartphones and tablets have become mobile collectors of data and images. Forest inspections and conservation monitoring have become more efficient, including the automatic recording of spatial coordinates.

4. The popularization of smartphones and other mobile devices in the 2010s began offering computing power and internet access on the go. The Internet of Things and the access and dissemination of drones were also made possible. Smart sensors and Internet of Things devices have been deployed to monitor various parameters such as air and soil humidity and temperature, tree growth and leaf cover. These technologies helped coin the term precision forestry, which aims to optimize the use of resources, reduce waste and create healthier forests.

5. Access to artificial intelligence models and machine learning algorithms in the 2020s now allows us to assimilate the immense volume of data generated by other technologies. In addition to quickly analyzing gigabytes of information, they recognize patterns and indicate decisions that minimize errors. These technologies are used in forest conservation efforts, as they more accurately detect illegal logging, deforestation and changes in biodiversity patterns.

These five waves made Forestry more digitalized and, specifically, revolutionized:

1. Data collection and analysis (a) with LiDAR and drones, previously only done by manned aircraft. It makes use of agile platforms, reduces costs and allows fast and accurate 3D mapping of forests, providing unparalleled insights into forest topography, vegetation structure and even dendrometry; (b) with satellites and new aerial platforms, such as stationary balloons and autonomous wings powered by solar energy, making forest monitoring real-time more accurate; and (c) with business intelligence and the Internet of Things to integrate sensors and mobile data collectors for autonomous, fast, less error-prone and safe decision-making.

2. Automation and field operations (a) with soil preparation and robotic sampling integrated with georeferencing systems RTK to ensure ideal tree growth conditions; and (b) with precise pest control and fertilization carried out by drones that apply agrochemicals and fertilizers, minimizing environmental impacts and waste.

3. Connectivity and communication (a) via remote radio or satellite communication, covering vast areas to ensure rapid response from operation centers; and (b) via integrated management panels that, through telemetry and advanced connectivity, simultaneously supervise and control remote operations in real time.

4. Transport and operations conducted by (a) autonomous vehicles, propelled by electricity or biofuels, with low labor costs and greater operational efficiency; (b) production and harvest sensors installed on machines connected to operation centers for accurate, real-time feedback; and (c) with real-time monitoring of transport routes and fleets that optimize time, cost and minimize environmental impacts.

5. The measurement now (a) uses optical sensors and LiDAR profiling for cubing non-destructive tree measurement and volumetric measurement from piles of wood; and (b) simultaneously uses dendrometric and photometric sensors to monitor tree growth and health.

6. Management supporting it with (a) autonomous monitoring towers for early detection of signs of forest fires and other incidents, aiming for a quick and effective response; and (b) integrated holistic management systems, combining several technologies and platforms for simultaneous and multi-criteria management of forest, water and biodiversity resources.

At the end of this article, I wanted to know the opinion of a famous Artificial Intelligence platform, and asked it to evaluate my reflections. I transcribe the answer:

The framework provided offers a comprehensive overview of current and emerging trends. It can be complemented by the following considerations:

• Augmented and virtual reality for forest management planning and for field operators to quickly access tree-specific information.
• Digital cloning to create digital replicas of forests that simulate and predict how different factors can affect the growth and quality of forests.
• Advanced biometrics for identifying and tracking animals, helping in wildlife conservation efforts and maintaining ecological balance.
• Remote sensing, big data and measurement of carbon sequestration to assess the interaction with possible climate changes, water availability and the role of forests in mitigating these effects.
• Blockchain and forestry to ensure traceable timber supply chains and validation of sustainable forestry practices.
• Improved user interfaces, possibly voice-controlled, that reduce time for data entry and retrieval.
• Collaborative robots that work alongside human operators to increase productivity and reduce fatigue and accidents. (chatGPT, version 4.0)

When reading the suggestions, I realized the impact and how far we have advanced digitally. Artificial intelligence resources are still in their infancy, with enormous potential to reshape and expand the horizons of our Forestry. I also realized in this quick exercise how innovations complement our natural intelligence, which will have to be used wisely. However, for the good fruits of developments such as artificial intelligence to be harvested, it will be essential to remember that maximizing production needs is only viable if conditioned by ethical and human principles of justice and the natural limits of our planet.