Science spin-out adds colour to forest measurements

20th Aug 2013

New laser technology is being used to measure and map forest carbon in more detail than ever before.

Describing it as an 'MRI scanner for forests', its creators from the University of Edinburgh are now taking the technology to market with the launch of a new business called Carbomap.

LiDAR laser scanners are used to produce detailed three-dimensional maps of forest materials. But, until now, the scanners have operated at a single wavelength, effectively mapping forests in black and white.

Carbomap's sophisticated scanners, developed and brought to market with the help of NERC funding, will measure forests at four different wavelengths, adding colour to the picture, letting analysts distinguish between different forest materials.

The unique data can be used to give more accurate estimates of the amount of carbon stored in a forest, and so give a stronger indication of forest health.

The lasers can also be attached to aircraft, allowing them to cover large areas in short periods of time, and map remote areas that might be inaccessible on the ground.

Accurate measurements of forest carbon are crucial to proposed carbon trading schemes, such as the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degredation (REDD) programme, where carbon stored in protected forests can be bought to offset emissions.

Carbomap's technology can also be used by the timber industry to monitor the health of plantations and determine the best time to harvest.

The team is now looking at an innovative crowd-sourced investment model, in an effort to get the airborne operations off the ground.

The team also have ambitions of taking the technology into space, where forests could be monitored constantly, and at a global scale.

Professor Iain Woodhouse, co-founder of Carbomap, says, "You cannot manage what you cannot measure. What we've developed is like an MRI scanner for forests. It allows you to measure forest properties in 3D and in colour. It gives you unique information on forest materials, allowing you to tell the difference between green healthy vegetation and the dead stuff on the ground, for example."

"From the air we can get data which is almost as good as ground measurements, but at a fraction of the cost and in a fraction of the time."

Perry Guess, NERC's Head of Knowledge Exchange says, "Carbomap is a great example of NERC research being turned into business, bringing real benefits for the economy and society."

"Having supported Iain and backing his research from its fundamental science beginnings all the way through to bringing a product to market, it's incredibly rewarding for us to see this deliver a business that's thriving and taking on new people."

As well as support for Professor Iain Woodhouse and the fundamental science behind the technology, NERC has provided support to a number of Carbomap's co-founders through various fellowships and grants.

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