Energy Transition

How to measure forest carbon

Jesko Von Windheim
Professor, Duke University
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Two Duke University graduate students are developing an innovative new technology to measure forest carbon.

Aaron Berdanier and Ramsey Meigs believe that by equipping small unmanned aerial drones with GPS-guided light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors, they can accurately measure forest carbon on more than 1,000 acres of forestland a day.

When fully developed, their technology could make it much easier, faster and more affordable for landowners, especially those owning smaller tracts in or near rapidly expanding urban areas, to calculate the value of their forested land in carbon offsets.

This could offer small landowners a new, and very persuasive, incentive to conserve their forestland rather than developing it.

“Small, family-owned parcels are often the first properties to be developed on the urban-rural interface. They’re also an untapped market for carbon offset projects, because they’re too small to justify the expensive measurements currently used by offset developers,” says Berdanier, a PhD student in forest ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “Our technology could drop the cost of carbon measurements to a point where bringing small forestland properties into the carbon offset market becomes feasible.”

Measuring carbon in these forests – which may range from a few hundred acres up to 10,000 – can take weeks using conventional ground-based sampling methods, and requires a team of trained workers, Berdanier explains. And after all that, the final measurement of carbon stored might still not be as precise as a carbon offset purchaser would like, because traditional inventories are based on data collected from only a limited number of sample plots.

By contrast, the LIDAR-based, drone-enabled remote-sensing solution Berdanier and Meigs are developing is sophisticated enough to measure carbon storage and other key forest characteristics down to the level of individual trees.

“Our solution makes it possible to accurately, affordably and quickly realize the full value of the carbon stored in your forestland,” says Meigs, a dual Master of Forestry (MF) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) student. “Working with fewer people on the ground, we can collect the measurements in a day, process the data, and produce detailed reports for the landowners within a week.”

Berdanier and Meigs have launched a startup company, Canopy Scientific, to market their new technology.

Last month, they were awarded second place and a $25,000 cash prize in a statewide competition for student-led startups sponsored by the North Carolina State Employees Credit Union. Gov. Pat McCrory and former Gov. James Hunt (pictured above, with Berdanier and Meigs) presented the award.

The prize money will go a long way toward covering the $15,000 price tag for the type of remote-controlled drone they need and the $12,000 cost of a LIDAR sensor array. Berdanier and Meigs plan to pursue other funding opportunities in coming months to cover the rest of their costs, as well as any additional expenses they incur in developing the complicated algorithms and software that will serve as Canopy Scientific’s proprietary forest-carbon modeling tools.

If a non-commercial field test in a local forest this summer goes well, they’ll form a corporation, apply to the Federal Aviation Administration for a commercial drone operation permit, and begin looking for paying customers.

“The market potential for this technology is huge,” Meigs says. “Aside from our core target of small, family-owned forests and farms, we can contract our services out to larger forest landowners and carbon offset developers to make their jobs easier, in any size of forest and on just about any terrain.”

With a few minor tweaks, the technology could also be used to measure habitat connectivity, species diversity and other key environmental parameters within a forest – making it useful to conservation groups, government agencies, scientists, surveyors and land planners.

The idea for the new technology first occurred to Berdanier while he was taking a Nicholas School course taught by Jesko von Windheim, professor of the practice of environmental innovation and entrepreneurship, who has since agreed to serve as faculty advisor for Canopy Scientific.

“Jesko got me thinking about ways to turn my scientific research in forest ecology and statistics into something people and markets would value, and I came up with the idea of using them to develop a better way to measure forest carbon with drone technology,” Berdanier says. “Once I had the idea, I wanted to find someone who had strong experience working on the industry side of forest management. I approached Ramsey, who brings excellent business acumen to the table.”

Berdanier’s doctoral advisor at the Nicholas School is James S. Clark, Nicholas Professor of Environmental Science. Meig’s MF advisor is Jeffrey Vincent, Clarence F. Korstian Professor of Forest Economics and Management.

This article is published in collaboration with Duke. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jesko Von Windheim is a Professor of the Practice of Environmental Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University. Jeffrey R. Vincent is the Clarence F. Korstian Professor of Forest Economics and Management in the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University. James S. Clark is the Nicholas Professor of Environmental Science at Duke University. 

Image: An aerial view shows a palm oil plantation in South Sumatra province. REUTERS/Beawiharta. 

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Related topics:
Energy TransitionForestsFuture of the Environment
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