Drone-based technology remotely assesses the health of trees affected by climate change

Canada has nearly 362 million hectares of forest, but climate change is negatively impacting tree health and productivity. Trees planted today must withstand future climate instabilities.

Input Ingo Ensinger, associate professor of biology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga, and an innovative new technology that could provide further insight into tree health. Ensminger’s lab studies plant-environment interactions and the effects of climate change on plant metabolism and photosynthesis from the molecular to leaf, species and ecosystem levels.

Ingo Ensinger

Ensminger and his team have developed a drone-based technology called the FastPheno project that remotely assesses photosynthetic phenology and plant fitness.

“Most people who use drones in trees and forests are trying to measure the height and size of the canopy, they use drones for inventories,” he says. “Our goal is different – ​​we’re trying to assess health and fitness and overall performance based on vegetation’s ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere as it photosynthesizes and produces biomass.”

Ensminger recently received a $4.7 million grant for his FastPheno project from Genome Canada, an independent, government-funded, non-profit organization.

“It’s very rewarding to receive funding to develop and implement tools that will hopefully help arborists and forestry practitioners identify trees that are resilient to climate change,” says Ensminger, who anticipates using the tools for tree improvement programs or to set targets for forest conservation and management.

Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program provides new applied genomics solutions to problems facing Canadians and supports collaboration in forestry and other sectors.

The unique technology allows them to distinguish the performance of thousands of trees, and researchers can use the approach to see how drought stress controls photosynthesis in natural forests.

“All of this is based on the optical fingerprint of the vegetation,” explains Ensminger. “This fingerprint is derived from measurements of the spectral reflectance of leaves. The spectral reflectance of the leaves is highly variable and can be used as an indicator of plant health as it changes with drought stress or heat stress.” The fingerprint is also species-specific and therefore future work in Ensminger’s lab will also investigate how species can be distinguished to monitor biodiversity.

When it comes to arboriculture and forest conservation, the ability to distinguish trees that perform well during drought and heat is incredibly useful — supplementing genomic selection with adaptive traits could help produce trees that are more resilient to future climates are resilient in Canada.

Put simply, Ensminger believes it could transform Canada’s forest sector.

“The results were very promising,” reports Ensminger. “We can distinguish water-stressed trees from well-watered trees, we can assess how photosynthetic activity changes throughout the year, and in large forest stands we can identify trees that are performing well and distinguish them from unhealthy trees or trees.” who are stressed.”

Ensminger’s technology is fast, reliable and inexpensive compared to vegetation monitoring, which relies on visual inspection and manual measurements. New research, made possible by FastPheno, now aims to apply the drone-based phenotyping approach at scale and investigate how reliably it can be used in forests in Ontario and Quebec to monitor the health and fitness of individual trees.

If successful, FastPheno could achieve cost savings of $540 million per year, reduce assessment times from weeks to hours – and it can be transferred from forest vegetation to applications in agriculture, conservation and biodiversity studies.

St. Casimir Experimental Forest in Quebec, a site where Ensminger and his team conduct much of their drone work (photo courtesy of Éric Dussault, Natural Resources Canada)

What’s next for Ensminger’s team? During their drone flights, they collect enormous amounts of data – which now have to be processed and analyzed. They will work with robotics experts to improve field data collection and will develop tools to automate the process of image analysis and pixel classification using machine learning and AI technologies.

“We also want to develop software and web interfaces that provide access to users, so that not only researchers but a wide range of end users can access the data generated by this approach,” he says.

“This is an exciting time for genomics,” noted Rob Annan, President and CEO of Genome Canada, following a federal announcement of funding for FastPheno and other projects in March. “The knowledge, tools and technology it generates fuels innovation in traditional sectors, helping them achieve green growth and improve the health and quality of life of Canadians.”

Ensminger’s project will complement the genomic selection research and operational programs of Natural Resources Canada and the Quebec Department of Forests, Wildlife and Parks.

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