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Aircraft for Environmental and Forest Science

Final Report Summary - AIRFORS (Aircraft for Environmental and Forest Science)

Wood and timber production remain a priority for the future of our forests, but habitat and biodiversity protection, and the accumulation of organic carbon for climate change mitigation are also becoming important. Many diverse scientific disciplines are currently focussing on forests at various scale: on individual tree species, communities and forest ecosystems. At the same time, the potential use of wood, but also the human population which depends on forest resources are evolving at a fast pace. The AIRFORS project opened new opportunities for innovative forest observation, assessment and monitoring strategies based on the use of advanced airborne sensors. The concept has been that of bringing together experienced operators of a young SME based in Austria (Airborne Technologies, AT, Wiener Neustadt) and scientists of FoxLab, a scientific laboratory jointly operated by the Fondazione E.Mach and Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, in Trentino (Italy).

AIRFORS explored opportunities to measure tree biomass from aircraft using laser-based 3D remote sensing (Lidar). AT operated aircraft carrying advanced laser scanners over selected study areas to reconstruct 3D shape of trees at the surface by recording the pulsed laser signals at very high resolution. The signals were analysed and transformed into spatially resolved distances between the exact GPS position of the aircraft and the land surface. Airborne operations could provide, in this way, very detailed information on the size, height and structure of the trees, leading to an accurate assessment of its biomass and the amount of carbon. The use of this technology is more cost-effective than what a squad of technicians could do in the field with a much longer time period and often with lower accuracy. But Lidar applications were extended also beyond forest monitoring. A dedicated study was made involving FoxLab scientists and AT operators to explore how 3D surface information can be used to monitor and quantitatively assess the magnitude of defoliation after extreme weather events. The study focussed on maize damaged by strong hail events occurred in Austria, but the results are of value for other type of crops, tree plantations and forests, also including pest & disease effects.

But as detailed in the workplan, AIRFORS also focussed on the atmosphere. A new Atmospheric Turbulence Probe was installed and certified on a light aircraft of AT (Eco-Dimona, Diamonds Air) and tested in flights. The probe, originally jointly developed by CNR(Italy) and NOAA (Usa), provides "in-flight" high resolution information on wind speed, air temperature, global and net radiation and atmospheric turbulence, thus providing the physiical basis for the calculation of the surface flux of any scalar that can be measured at sufficient temporal resolution (high frequency >10Hz), The probe is a part of the Airborne Life Finder is a new system capable of collecting airborne micro-organisms and to unveil where those organisms actually come from and go. By using this probe combined with state of the art metagenomic tools based on DNA and RNA sequencing, research will shortly be able to identify what are the biological living particles in the atmosphere that are released by forests and crops and to understand if such biological fluxes do have a role in a series of critical process such as precipitation and the spread of microbial biodiversity. Industry and Academia will continue to fly together after the conclusion of the AIRFORS project !