VR supporting safer and more cost-effective forest management

VR supporting safer and more cost-effective forest management

New research has demonstrated that forestry field operators can accurately perform certain tree stem assessments in an immersive, virtual reality (VR) environment. Consequent benefits to industry could range from improved safety to reduced labour costs.

As part of this FWPA-supported research project, a team at the University of Tasmania used data acquired by helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to investigate the potential of VR to replace current forest inventory fieldwork approaches.

Lead researcher Dr Winyu Chinthammit, of the University of Tasmania’s College of Sciences and Engineering, said the project was prompted by the fact forests are becoming more difficult to evaluate manually, due to increasing safety concerns and access problems.

“We were looking to work with people who didn’t have any experience of VR, but who would traditionally go into forests to assess trees, in order to test how people who already have skills in forestry might perform inside a VR environment,” Dr Chinthammit said.

For this pilot project, dense point cloud data captured from a pre-harvest Pinus radiata inventory plot was successfully imported into an immersive VR environment using the commercially available hardware, Oculus Rift. Functionality included multiple options for users to record their observations using a virtual control pad.

The design of the VR application was further informed and developed using the results of extensive user testing and feedback, undertaken in collaboration with several industry partners.

An initial experiment with 31 industry participants helped to determine how effectively users were able to learn to use the VR tools. A second experiment was then conducted with 17 participants, using an updated version of the software, to assess how reliably users were able to measure or estimate tree metrics.

The testing found all participants demonstrated a capacity to work within the VR environment. Most were able to successfully acquire the skills needed to use the tools and take basic measurements, including diameter and height, within a reasonable time.

However, more complex measurements relating to features such as wobble, sweep type, stem damage and branch size inside the canopy were not as accurate.

“This project provided evidence that a field crew can indeed operate inside a VR environment and perform some of the same basic tasks they would normally complete as part of their everyday operations on the ground,” Dr Chinthammit said.

“Going forward, we plan to use more advanced visualisation and rendering techniques to determine how the data can be used to give a more detailed view of what is going on inside the canopy.

“The ultimate aim is for users to assess forests in a VR environment with the same levels of accuracy that would be achieved had they gone into the forest themselves. For industry, this will mean reduced labour costs, as well as overcoming access problems and safety issues,” Dr Chinthammit said.

In Melbourne this July, the Australian Agriculture – Immersive Technology Conference will be hosted by Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), in collaboration with other Australian Rural Research and Development Corporations (RDCs), including FWPA.

The two-day conference, trade show and think tank is designed to investigate augmented and virtual reality for all agricultural sectors, featuring more than 40 presentations.

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