Vodafone, Defra and Forest Research trial forest tech solution

Vodafone has announced a partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and Forest Research, Great Britain’s leading organisation for forestry and tree-related research, to explore how technology can be used to monitor the part trees play in tackling climate change.

The pilot will use Internet of Things (IoT) technology to monitor tree growth and the impacts of environmental change on the UK’s forests.  By connecting the trees, vast amounts of data can be collected and analysed quickly and efficiently.

Specialist sensors have been attached to trees in two forests and connected via Vodafone’s leading Narrowband-IoT (NB-IoT) network. Data is collected and transmitted to Defra and Forest Research where advanced analytics will assess the impact of temperature, humidity and soil moisture on tree growth and function. Measuring tree growth is important in enabling scientists to estimate the contribution of trees to climate change mitigation as a result of their ability to absorb and store carbon from the atmosphere.

The three month trial is now underway in Forestry England’s Alice Holt forest, near Farnham in Surrey, and Harwood forest, near Rothbury in Northumberland. It is the first of its kind in the UK. Defra and Forest Research will use the results to inform policy makers and the public of how the changing environment impacts tree growth and the huge benefits that trees can provide by storing carbon.

The trial follows Defra’s 25-year Environment Plan which outlined an ambition to increase woodland cover in England and the Government’s commitment to increase tree planting across the UK to 30,000 hectares per year by 2025. To help reach these targets, the recently announced £640 million Nature for Climate Fund will invest in tree-planting alongside other environmental restoration over the next five years.

Anne Sheehan, Director at Vodafone Business UK, said: “Tackling climate change requires radical thinking and our forests will be vital to this. Our IoT technology enables us to connect trees and monitor performance, which is a perfect example of how technology can be used in new ways to help create a more sustainable future.”

Malcolm McKee, Chief Technology Officer at Defra said: “Trees are a unique natural resource that play a crucial role in combating the biodiversity and climate crises we face. This exciting partnership uses newly-emerging IoT technologies to improve our understanding of the impacts of environmental change on our nation’s forests, which will help inform our policy making. The new technology provides better quality data and importantly, allows us to monitor places that current technologies cannot reach. We are always looking for ways to explore how using innovative new technologies can improve our data gathering. This initial focus is on the monitoring of forests, but the technologies will be applicable to monitoring ‘anything’ in the environment.”

Matthew Wilkinson, Research Scientist at Forest Research said: “This innovative collaborative project has the potential to transform the way we are able to collect and analyse data, and to reduce the need for frequent site visits, especially at remote rural locations. The project also will help us gather more data which is critical to targeting efforts to measure the contribution of individual trees to climate change. If the trial is successful, we hope it will expand to other areas of environmental monitoring and signify a step change in the amount of data we are able to collect and analyse.”

Vodafone’s specialist sensors can withstand harsh environments. The sensors are attached to several trees within different areas of the two forests, and data is constantly gathered and transmitted back to a user-friendly web portal accessible by both Defra and Forest Research. There they use advanced data analytics to track the impact of external factors on tree growth and function without the need for frequent site visits.

NB-IoT operates within a very narrow radio band frequency enabling wider coverage and deeper penetration than traditional networks. As a result, this technology is perfect for use across large areas, underground or within buildings. It also operates at low power so that specially designed batteries within devices, such as sensors, can last up to ten years. This combination ensures that NB-IoT solutions are more sustainable as well as being less expensive to install and run than current alternatives.

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