Treeswift’s autonomous robots take flight to save forests

Forests cover 30% of the Earth’s landmass, but that number is on the decline. Despite forests’ crucial role in conserving wildlife and processing carbon dioxide, many are threatened by deforestation and wildfires. Complicating these threats is the lack of quantitative information that foresters and environmental researchers need for making important decisions to preserve forests.

A flying robot flying in a forest in daylight.
One of Treeswift’s flying robots on a test run in a New Jersey forest. (Image: Penn Engineering Today)

Steven Chen, co-founder and CEO of Treeswift and doctoral student in computer and information science at Penn Engineering, wants to change that.

Chen founded Treeswift as a spin-off company from Penn Engineering’s GRASP Lab. The idea behind it is simple: Use robotic tools to automate forestry and reduce risk for human workers. Treeswift uses swarms of autonomous, flying robots equipped with LiDAR sensors to monitor, inventory, and map timberland. The drones collect images of the land and render them into 3D maps that can be analyzed for precise, quantifiable measurements of a given forest’s biomass.

Of the variety of applications this data has, Treeswift is focused on three main targets: calculating inventory for the timber industry, mapping forests for preservation, and measuring forest biomass and fuel to prevent the spread of wildfires. The collected data can be used by researchers in a variety of industries to assess the health of forests and build predictive models that can aid in climate change action initiatives.

“Treeswift is a balance of priorities,” Chen says. “We are trying to build a general system that solves a lot of problems. Our main customer base right now is industrial forestry, but we are looking into opportunities that would enable us to work in wildfire forest management as well.”

This story is by Isabella Lopez. Read more at Penn Engineering Today.