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Timber Harvesting Safety

18-R-16: Aerial Drones: Applications in Forestland Management

by  Rob Nagel, Wildlife Biologist


Ongoing advancements in the capabilities of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) continue to open up time and money saving applications in the forest industry.  At FRA’s Western Region Spring Meeting, Rob Nagel, Wildlife Biologist with Port Blakely – US Forestry, Tumwater, Washington shared their experiences in using UAS for a variety of forest management applications.


Port Blakely uses a DJI Phantom 4 Pro.
Specifications include:
          -20 MP camera, 4K HD video
          -Flies up to 4.13 miles from controller
          -30 min battery life
          -Flies up to 45 MPH
          -Gimbel keeps camera steady regardless of what the drone is doing
          -$3,295 Total Cost including extra batteries, charging hub, backpack and Drone Deploy processing service subscription


UAS can be used for a broad variety of forest management related functions.  Examples include:

  • Marketing Materials
    • Aerial images are excellent ways to market land and services.  A picture is worth 1000 words.
  • Real-Time Monitoring
    • Surveying blowdown, insect or bear damage, road conditions, etc.
  • Acquisitions
    • Viewing inaccessible areas, rapid assessment of conditions not easily viewed.
  • Progress Reporting
    • Harvest, road construction, PCT, etc.
  • On-Demand Aerial Imagery
    • Images captured from UAS can be stitched together to create high-resolution ortho-imagery
  • Depletions
    • Confirmation of harvest acres and adjustments to GIS.
  • 3D Modeling
    • Excellent way to visualize harvest impacts on viewsheds.
  • Volume Estimates
    • Rock volume estimates, slash piles, coarse woody debris, etc.
  • Compliance Audit Support
    • Having a 3D model of every harvest unit can benefit discussions with auditors about compliance to standards and BMPs
  • Elevations/Digital Surface Modeling
    • Elevation models derived from UAS imagery can aid in mapping, inventorying, and planning. 
  • Wetland Delineations / Stream Mapping
    • Wetland delineations and stream mapping can be done more easily using elevation models created by image processing services like Drone Deploy or Pix4D.
  • Plantation Evaluations
    • Struggling plantation areas are more visible in high-resolution imagery.  Using filters and algorithms can further aid in identifying struggling areas.
  • Pre-Commercial Thinning Audits
    • Metrics like species and trees per acre can be made from high-resolution imagery rather than walking difficult PCT stands.
  • Fire Response
    • Drones have a huge potential to increase safety when it comes to fire response.  Use must be coordinated with suppression agencies.


-Many uses of drones enhance quality, precision, or safety, but do not save time or money (many uses do though!)
-Current FAA regulations can be a challenge, but there is optimism.  Regulations are expected to loosen.
-UAS for this type of application are regulated by the FAA and TSA.  For more information, read about Remote Pilot Certification.
-Potential for neighbor conflicts


-Drones are relatively inexpensive and there are many uses for them
-Drone investment & services are advancing quickly
-The number and quality of drone Apps & services is increasing
-Commercial drone use is increasing
-Drone use in forestry is still developing and new and novel uses are still being discovered

For those not interested in acquiring the equipment and skills, private contractors provide services in many areas.

Drone Applications 560
Rob Nagel with DJI Phantom 4 Pro

Monitoring blowdowns made much easier

On-demand Aerial Imagery: shown here 160-acre harvest area

3D Model
3D model of harvest units can be used during compliance audits

Struggling Plantation
Struggling plantations are more visible in high resolution imagery

Using Filters
Using filters and algorithms can further identify struggling areas.


Submitted by:
Rob Nagel
Wildlife Biologist


US Forestry
8133 River Drive SE
Tumwater, WA 98501
P (360) 596-9451
M (360) 280-4387

Reviewed by:
Vickie Swanton, FRA Western Region Manager