OITA – With forestry workers growing older, Oita Prefecture has embarked on a “smart forestry” initiative to reduce workloads, partly through the use of drones.
Forests cover 72 percent of the prefecture, with most of them cultivated plantations. Despite the use of mechanization for cutting down trees, planting still involves hard physical work, including climbing mountain slopes while carrying nursery trees weighing up to 30 kg.
Forestry association workers are currently the local industry’s main workforce, but 44 percent of them are 60 or older. Young people are reluctant to join their ranks, due partly to the physical labor.
Against this backdrop, the prefectural federation of forestry associations is working on the possible use of drones for transporting materials including nursery trees, support posts and anti-deer nets.
But the drone plan faces some challenges. Currently, industrial-use drones generally use rechargeable batteries, which allow flying times of up to about 30 minutes, according to the federation.
For planting work, drones would likely need to make successive flights between loading and unloading sites for over 90 minutes.
The federation is working to win state subsidies for research and development of new types of drones, including self-powered ones.
“New technologies will not only reduce workloads, but also help to change the industry’s boring image, hopefully attracting more young forestry workers,” the federation’s Tomoyuki Ashikari said.
Under the initiative, the prefectural government also introduced a ground-based 3-D laser scanner for checking tree growth and selecting specimens to cut down.
Use of the scanner, which can measure trees and land features within a radius of 130 meters in a single reading, halved the time for the process. In addition, a special computer program can create 3-D images of the forest showing the volume of trees that can be cut down.
The prefecture plans to use the scanner at about 1,000 locations over three years in a bid to improve its timber harvest projections.
In the meantime, the Forestry Agency started conducting aircraft laser sensor scans of mountains in Oita and neighboring Kumamoto Prefecture in June last year, in the wake of a string of powerful earthquakes in and around Kumamoto two months in April.
The Kumamoto quakes registered up to lower 6, the third-highest level on the Japanese seismic intensity scale, in the Oita cities of Yufu and Beppu. Although damage to the local forestry industry was minor, landslides and cracks were observed.
By using the airborne remote sensor data, the Oita government has begun work to update the prefecture’s topographic map data for the first time in about half a century. The update is expected to “help plan hardware development, including for forestry-use routes and conservation facilities,” a prefectural government official said.