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 instability.

Enter Ingo Ensminger, professor of biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, and innovative new technologies that could provide further insight into tree health. Ensminger’s laboratory studies plant-environment interactions and the impact of climate change on plant metabolism and photosynthesis from the molecular level to leaves, species and ecosystems.

Ingo Ensminger

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

“Most people who use drones in trees and forests try to measure height and canopy size, they use drones for inventory,” he said. “Our goals are different – ​​we are trying to assess health and fitness, and overall performance as demonstrated by the ability of vegetation to remove CO2 from the atmosphere when they photosynthesize and produce biomass.”

Ensminger was recently awarded $4.7 million in funding for his FastPheno project by Genome Canada, a federally funded independent non-profit organization.

“It is very rewarding to receive funding to develop and implement a tool that we hope will be used to help tree breeders and forestry practitioners identify trees that are resistant to climate change,” said Ensminger, who anticipates the tool will be used for tree improvement programs. or setting targets for forest conservation and management.

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

The unique technology allows them to differentiate the performance of thousands of trees, and researchers can use the approach to detect drought stress control in photosynthesis in natural forests.

“All of this is based on the optical fingerprint of vegetation,” explains Ensminger. “This fingerprint was obtained from the measurement of the spectral reflectance of the leaf. Leaf spectral reflectance varies widely, and can be used as an indicator of plant health, as it changes when exposed to drought or heat stress.” Fingerprints are also species-specific, and so future work in Ensminger’s lab will also explore how species can be differentiated to monitor biodiversity.

In terms of tree breeding and forest conservation, the ability to discriminate against trees that perform well during drought and heat is extremely useful — supplementing genomic selection with adaptive traits could help produce future climate-resistant trees in Canada.

Simply put, Ensminger believes, it could transform Canada’s forestry sector.

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

Ensminger technology is fast, reliable and cost-effective compared to vegetation monitoring that relies on visual inspection and manual measurements. New research enabled through FastPheno is now aiming to apply the drone-based phenotyping approach at scale and explore how reliably it can be used across forests in Ontario and Quebec to monitor the health and wellness of individual trees.

If successful, FastPheno could save $540 million per year and reduce assessment time from weeks to hours – and could be transferred from forest vegetation to applications in agriculture, conservation, and biodiversity studies.

Experimental forest of St. Casimir in Quebec, site of the field where Ensminger and his team do a lot of drone work (photo courtesy of ric Dussault, Natural Resources Canada)

What’s next for the Ensminger team? During their drone flights, they collect huge amounts of data – and now it’s just a matter of processing and analyzing it. They are collaborating with robotics experts to improve field data collection and will develop tools to automate image analysis and pixel classification processes using machine learning and AI technologies.

“We also aim to develop software and web interfaces that provide user access so that not only researchers, but various end users have access to the data generated through this approach,” he said.

“This is an exciting time for genomics,” said Rob Annan, President and CEO of Genome Canada, following the announcement in March of federal funding for FastPheno and other projects. “The knowledge, tools and technology generated drive innovation in traditional sectors and help them achieve green growth, as well as improve the health and quality of life of Canadians.”

The Ensminger project will complement the genome selection research and operational programs of Natural Resources Canada and the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks.

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