Forest surveying in Scotland is to be improved through the use of aerial laser scanning.

The new system, now being adopted by Forestry and Land Scotland, is based on LIDAR techniques pioneered in Finland but rarely used in the UK, using reflected laser pulses to build up 3D-models of vegetation and surface topography. FLS has one of the most comprehensive forest inventories in the world, yet the traditional, resource-intensive manual surveys only allow it to survey around 3% of it’s landholding per year. A much more comprehensive surveying tool will help forest managers to plan transport logistics, better estimate potential harvesting costs and revenues, and determine forest and soil carbon storage dynamics.

Some considerable effort has also gone into giving it the Scotland-specific acronym 'SALTIRE' – the 'Scottish Airborne Lidar Tool for Inventory and Resource Estimation'.

The project is another innovation to emerge from the Scottish Government’s Civtech programme, that looks to identify technological solutions to real world problems. FLS’ innovation manager Josh Roberts, said; “The new system has the potential to be amongst the most advanced forest surveying techniques in the world. It will provide detailed information about the age and structure of Scotland’s national forests on a scale that has never been available before.

“Information about the forests we manage is the foundation for our business so this could have a huge impact on our abilities to make optimum use of our resources and make the best use of the forests we manage.

“With the demand for timber increasing steadily, there are clearly economic implications – both in terms of savings and income – but if this works it would also be of huge benefit as we work towards adapting and restructuring our forests to make them better able to withstand the impact of climate change.”

Tailored to Scottish conditions and UK forestry conventions, the new system is being tested through the airborne laser scanning of 1000 square kilometres of FLS-managed forests in Dumfries and Galloway. The challenge being addressed is how to take accurate, repeatable measurements of trees, timber and forests at scale, regularly and affordably.