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Forest Operational monitoring using Copernicus and UAV hyperSpectral data

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FOCUS (Forest Operational monitoring using Copernicus and UAV hyperSpectral data)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2021-06-30

The sustainability of European forests is critical to ensure climate goals are met, the conservation of important ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as protecting the wellbeing of communities across the continent. However, climate change, disease, and lack of information are compromising the future of forests across wide swaths of land in many member states. Modern forestry and conservation are a precision science, based on advanced resources and tools, capable of detecting threats with pinpoint accuracy.
The global movement of goods and people creates important challenges to protecting European ecosystems from the harmful introduction of invasive species. These species range from exotic plants to diseases for which native trees are unprepared.

In 1999, it was reported, for the first time in Europe, the presence of the Pinewood Nematode (Bursaphelenchus xylophilus) in Portugal. This is a small organism that is transported by a beetle (Monochamus galloprovincialis) and affects mostly coniferous trees. The detection was followed by a rapid expansion in Portugal, calling for the implementation of rigorous control actions. The nematode causes a deadly disease (Pine Wilt Disease) that can compromise the stability of forests and the sustainability of economic activities that depend upon it.
The biggest challenge to the containment and eradication efforts is the timely detection of the trees infected by the nematode. Without this information, many infected trees will remain undetected and serve as a reservoir for the next seasonal cycle of infection.

Project FOCUS (Forest Operational monitoring using Copernicus and UAV hyperSpectral data) was a project funded by the European Commission that developed remote ways to detect infected trees. This gives forest managers enough information and time to plan the actions required to cut and remove infected trees from the field. Without these actions, stopping Pine Wilt Disease from spreading across Europe will be challenging.

The University of Coimbra (Portugal), VITO (Belgium), S[&]T received 1.7 million euros to develop an innovative solution that combines European satellite imagery from the Copernicus program, with the high-resolution data captured by Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (also known as ‘drones’). For the first time, forest managers will have access to a data platform where they can rapidly check which trees are infected and how to best act to prevent spread.

The project leverages impressive state-of-the-art technology to extract information from the complex images acquired by satellites and drones using artificial intelligence and a large series of field campaigns (on the ground and in the air) to develop a solution that is efficient, scalable, and affordable.
After three and half years of development and intensive consultation with stakeholders, a series of products are ready to enter the market, enhancing existing solutions and enabling entirely new ones. Project FOCUS advanced remote detection of Pine Wilt Disease in an unprecedented way and now, organizations around the world will be able to integrate the solutions into their activities.
The outputs of FOCUS include regional maps created from the analysis of Copernicus Sentinel-2 imagery and very high-resolution tree infection maps based on drone imagery. Other products, designed to support the activities of FOCUS include land cover maps and particularly coniferous cover maps. Taken together, the information sources, and the analytics enabled by the programs designed to accompany them, enable an informed decision-making process that was previously impossible. In the process, important advances to science were made as well. The legacy of FOCUS will continue to produce breakthroughs in the coming years, as the data continues to be analyzed and the maps are employed to identify patterns.

Learn more about the project and connect with the team at http://focus.uc.pt.
Project FOCUS conducted several activities in parallel to support the development of complex solutions to detect and monitor trees exhibiting symptoms compatible with Pine Wilt Disease. To this end, the following activities were pursued by the consortium, in partnership with stakeholders:
1. Field campaigns and laboratory analysis to map and characterize, in detail, the location and status of infected trees. Three main test sites, and several other smaller test areas were monitored on a monthly basis. More than 100 individual trees were analyzed.
2. Aerial campaigns where remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) carrying advanced sensors (multispectral, hyperspectral, thermal) were flown over a diverse set of areas.
3. Aerial campaigns where an advanced sensor(APEX) carried aboard a small plane collected reference data to support algorithm development and RPAS benchmarking.
4. Development of methods to detect declining trees in satellite imagery acquired by Copernicus Sentinel-2.
5. Collection of user needs and requirements, to guarantee that the products and services developed by FOCUS, are in line with what the market ambitions to have.
6. Development of data platforms to provide the products to users in a simple, friendly way. For users to use the data in commercial and management activities, it has to be easily accessible and allow integration with existing solutions already used by companies.

The different lines of research are all interconnected and provide each other with relevant data and insights.

At the end of Project FOCUS the following results can be highlighted:
1. The first regional, Sentinel-2 based product available is able to detect pixels containing declining trees.
2. A very high-resolution product relying on RPAS data can early detect changes
3. 2 data access platforms were developed to distribute the aforementioned products.
At the onset of project FOCUS there were little to no previous operational services detecting and monitoring the occurrence of tree decline caused by Pine Wilt Disease (or other causes leading to similar symptoms).
The challenges to moving past small, highly controlled studies to a full-scale operational methodology were immense. In little more than 3 years, the consortium delivered a two-tier approach where regional analysis is conducted using satellite imagery from Europe’s Sentinel-2, while detailed, very high-resolution data acquired by RPAS (also known as ‘drones’). This approach introduced flexible early warning capabilities previously impossible to stakeholders. The use of machine-learning tools to extract information from imagery enabled the progress made and the reliability attested by high accuracy reports.
The advantages are significant for conservation and economic purposes. Trees can be protected through enhanced stewardship and as a result, greater value can be extracted from the forest. This can also lead to indirect gains, including the establishment or reinforcement of smart forests, managed by highly-informed users and unafraid to invest to secure better results and protect an invaluable natural resource. Furthermore, the FOCUS implementation strategy always valued the use of local resources and partners to deploy the new services. This will lead to new qualified jobs and opportunities for synergies and technological development beyond the need of the project. The legacy of FOCUS is as much in the advances beyond the state of the art as is in the economic and social benefits it is generating.
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