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 having a negative impact on the health and productivity of trees. Trees planted today must withstand future climatic instability.

Walk in Ingo Ensminger, an associate professor of biology at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, and an innovative new technology that could provide new insights into tree health. Ensminger’s lab studies plant-environment interactions and the impact of climate change on plant metabolism and photosynthesis, from the molecular level to the leaf, species and ecosystem level.

Ingo Ensminger

Ensminger and his team have developed drone-based technology, dubbed the FastPheno project, that remotely assesses the photosynthetic phenology and fitness of plants.

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

Ensminger recently received $4.7 million in funding for his FastPheno project from Genome Canada, an independent, federally funded not-for-profit organization.

“It is very gratifying to receive funding to develop and implement tools that will hopefully be used to help tree breeders and forestry practitioners identify trees that are resilient to climate change,” says Ensminger, who anticipates that the tools will be used for tree improvement programs. or set goals for forest conservation and management.

Genome Canada’s Genomics Applications Partnership Program brings new applied genomics solutions to problems facing Canadians and supports collaborations 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 detect the control of water stress on photosynthesis in natural forests.

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

When it comes to tree improvement and forest conservation, the ability to distinguish trees that perform well in drought and heat is incredibly useful – supplementing genomic selection with adaptive traits could help produce trees that are resistant to drought. future climate in Canada.

Simply put, Ensminger believes, it could transform the Canadian 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 varies over the year, and in large forest stands we can identify trees that are performing well and distinguish between those unhealthy trees or trees that are stressed.

Ensminger’s technology is fast, reliable and cost effective compared to vegetation monitoring that relies on visual inspections and manual measurements. New research enabled by FastPheno now aims to apply the drone phenotyping approach on a large scale and explore the reliability of its use in Ontario and Quebec forests to monitor the health and fitness of individual trees. .

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

Saint-Casimir Experimental Forest in Quebec, a field site where Ensminger and his team do much of their drone work (photo courtesy of Éric Dussault, Natural Resources Canada)

What’s next for the Ensminger team? During their drone flights, they collect a huge amount of data – and now it’s about processing and analyzing it. They are collaborating 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 artificial intelligence technologies. .

“We also aim to develop software and web interfaces that allow users to access the data produced through this approach, so that not only researchers, but also a wide range of end users have access to the data,” he said.

“These are exciting times for genomics,” said Rob Annan, President and CEO of Genome Canada, following a federal funding announcement in March for FastPheno and other projects. “The knowledge, tools and technologies it generates drive innovation in traditional sectors and help them achieve green growth, as well as improve the health and quality of life of Canadians.

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

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