Saving forests with AI 

Attacks by the European spruce bark beetle destroy huge areas of forest every year, at a cost to the forestry industry of several billion Swedish crowns. This is one of the forestry damage effects that LiU alumnus Markus Drugge has in his sights. His company, Arboair, will use AI-driven image analysis to improve sustainability in forestry.

Drones help Markus Drugge and Arboair find stressed and dead trees. Thor Balkhed

It’s a windy autumn day when we meet Markus Drugge at the Arboair office in Linköping Science Park. Five years ago, he was taking the LiU master’s programme in Energy - Environment - Management, part of which was a course in entrepreneurship. The students’ assignment was to come up with an innovative idea and assess its commercial viability. Having grown up on a farm and developed an interest in the green industries, Markus started to think about digitisation of agriculture and the use of drone swarms.

“I contacted a farmer in the Östergötland region and asked his opinion about an idea I had relating to analysing crops. He was interested, but said that his biggest problem was bark beetles who rampaged most intensely during the summer, when he was busy with the crops,” Markus Drugge remembers.

This sowed the seeds of the idea of using drones to analyse forestry damage. He contacted with LiU Innovation – although the first contact was based on another idea.

“I met an innovation adviser, who asked whether I had any further ideas. I told her I had another idea, but that it was rather wacky. She was curious, so I told her about my idea of analysing forests with drones and image analysis.”  

Markus Drugge at the Arboair office in Linköping Science Park. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

Soon after this, Markus Drugge took part in an inspiration seminar arranged by Prince Daniel’s Fellowships, which is a collaboration between Prince Daniel, the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), together with prominent entrepreneurs and business leaders.

“After the seminar, I was invited to join a round-table discussion and pitch my idea. When Prince Daniel said that there might be something in it, I decided it was worth trying to make a go of it.”

He joined up with Jacob Hjalmarsson, who had also participated in the round table with his own idea. They had become acquainted previously when both were students taking the master’s programme Energy - Environment - Management. Both of them were running companies in parallel with their studies, and thus already had a certain amount of experience in entrepreneurship. Together, they started to investigate the legal, financial and technical factors relating to the new company, while focussing in their master’s studies in sustainable entrepreneurship. And things moved rapidly after this. 

The goal – contributing to sustainable forestry

Today, Arboair is in the vanguard of the transition to sustainable forestry with digital technology. The company uses drones to take an inventory of large areas, combining high-resolution images with other forestry data, and analysing the result with AI. They can in this way create the conditions required to take measures at an early stage, such as isolating affected trees and protecting the remainder.

Picture of alumnusThe precision of the Arboair method is as high as 1 cm. Photo credit Thor Balkhed “Our method allows an inventory to be drawn up much more rapidly than manual, on-site, methods. The accuracy is also much higher, better than 90%, and we can achieve a precision of around 1 cm. By examining the needles, we can determine whether a spruce is under stress or has died.” 

The European spruce bark beetle destroys forestry products worth billions of Swedish crowns every year. The attacks, which decimate huge areas, started to escalate in 2018.

“We had what you might call ideal conditions to promote a pandemic – a very dry and warm summer followed by a dry winter without extremely low temperatures. This enabled the bark beetle to multiply prolifically, and it has remained since then at a high level. And it is advancing northwards.”
 
Picture of damage from the bark beetle.Damage from the bark beetle, holes with a diameter of approximately 1.5 mm. Arboair has ambitions to counteract not just the European spruce bark beetle. The company’s tools can be used to analyse all forms of forestry damage, such as attacks of fungi. 

“Forestry damage is increasing, and much of it depends on some form of climate change. Trees that could be efficient in binding carbon are disappearing, and stand there simply crumbling to powder. This is something we want to prevent, while at the same time contributing to more sustainable forestry and promoting biological diversity.” 

AI-based technology – opens for eco-services and new eco-friendly ideas

Damage is marked on a map similar to those used in Google Maps, and is presented with an analysis using a cloud-based service. The main customer group is forest owners and companies in forestry management, while other groups who can use the company products are those who insure forests, or use them as security for loans.

“Our technology can be used to increase the value of the forest,” Markus Drugge explains.

Picture of alumnus saving the forets.With a practised hand, Markus Drugge captures the drone as it lands. Photo credit Thor Balkhed Other opportunities that it opens for forest owners are to draw up forestry plans automatically, and starting to build up the capital needed for eco-services. The Arboair technology allows analysis of the amount of carbon bound in trees, which can then be used to start working in emissions trading schemes. It is also possible to determine the optimal configuration of forest to preserve to create, for example, recreation areas or areas for teepee camping.

Furthermore, the technology ensures that valuable raw material is not lost in the forest, and this means that it can be used in building, biorefineries, the development of cellulose plastics, lignin-based batteries, and other eco-friendly innovations.

In other words, there is a large market for Arboair’s solutions; the company is growing rapidly and is currently active throughout the Nordic region. On their journey, the founders have benefited greatly from the knowledge gained on the course in entrepreneurship, and they have been helped in their business development by LiU Innovation, which supported them during the first two years. After this, they found a helpful business climate in the LEAD company incubator.  

An important guiding principle of their business idea has been that their operations must be financially, ecologically and socially sustainable. The product is a service that customers take out a subscription to, rather than purchasing, in a model known as “Service as a System”. Their work has recently been recognised in two nominations: SaaS Newcomer of the Year and Product Team of the Year. 

“I’m hugely proud of being selected as one of five finalists, and even without having won we had a great opportunity to showcase Arboair’s work and products,” says Markus Drugge.

“Forests are the Earth’s lungs. And they bind the greatest amount of carbon. The most recent UN report makes it clear that forestry and the way in which we manage forests are vital. And it’s a great feeling that our products can make a difference, working to promote an eco-transition. This means that we will continue to keep a careful eye on the latest technology, with the courage to test and innovate.”

Picture of alumnus saving the forest.Markus Drugge where he belongs - in the forest. Photo credit Thor Balkhed

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