Many people grow plants in their gardens, balconies, and rooms. We check the condition of plants and take care of them. For example, we check if plants are well watered, prune dense plants, and eliminate withered flowers. Plants bring us joys by blooming beautiful flowers and producing vegetables, as if they return our favor. There is no question that people and plants interact with each other.
Then, have you thought about caring for forests, which occupy 70% of the land area of Japan?
Forests play an important role for the earth by providing habitat to living things, creating soil, storing rainwater, and absorbing pollutants in the atmosphere. When we come to think of forests, which have great impact on our planet and our lives, we tend to think it is better to leave them untouched.
In fact, it is not always good to leave it to the nature. In particular, planted forests should be properly cared for, just like plants grown at home. Did you know that without human intervention, landslides would be more likely to occur, hay fever would increase, and it would affect various aspects of your life?
What will happen to the forest if it is not maintained well?
Forest maintenance includes activities such as “undercut” to remove weeds and miscellaneous trees so that the planted saplings will grow healthily, and “thinning” to cut down some trees to reduce the density of trees for the prevention of overgrowth.
What would happen without “undercutting” or “thinning”? The sunlight would not reach the ground, roots of trees and plants would not grow, and will result in poor soil. If a heavy rain or typhoon occurs when the soil is barren, the roots cannot absorb the water, and natural disasters such as landslides will be more likely to occur.
Caring for forests also affects the occurrence of hay fever, which is currently bothering many people. Cedar forests, which are often found in planted forests in Japan, can increase the density of standing trees and compete for survival if they are not properly taken care of. Trees struggle for survival by releasing a lot of pollen. This means that the proper care of the cedar forest can suppress hay fever.
In addition, when forests are not properly maintained, the amount of CO2 absorption will decrease. From the perspective of the global environment, forest maintenance is very important.
However, even though people understand the importance of forests and the necessity of their maintenance, many forests are still not well-maintained. The reason is that forestry industry, which is responsible for forest development, is shrinking.
In any industry, its growth will decline if there is not enough workforce. In particular, the aging of the workforce in the forestry industry makes it difficult to find successors. When we asked the Forest Association about the reasons for this current situation, they pointed out that firstly, it is difficult to pass down the know-how of forestry, and secondly, the management system is not digitalized.
In forestry, there is a tendency that people carry out tasks based on knowledge gained through experience. Since the know-how depends on knowledge and skills of individuals, it is difficult to pass it on to successors. In addition, even though mountains are constantly changing their shapes, the management of forest information gathered on the ground is still based on paper. There is no real time information available, and it takes a lot of time to share information.
Furthermore, it generally takes a lot of time for forestry operations, and the risk of on-the-job mortality is 10 times higher than that of road accidents. In addition, most of management organization of forestry is on a small scale and have low productivity.
In order for forestry to develop in the future, it is necessary to build a low-cost and highly efficient work system that meets local conditions. To achieve these goals, solutions to support forestry are highly required.
Mobility technology for forest management to prevent natural disasters
At DENSO, a volunteer project team is working to resolve these forest conservation issues.
Imura of Electronics Business Unit thought, “We need a system to protect forests efficiently and safely.” With this in mind, Imura launched a project to protect forests with a strong will. The project name is “Treasure Mountain Project.”
This is a safe and secure operation support service focusing on forest measurement.
His family had been engaged in forestry since his great-grandparents began forestry after settling in Hokkaido, and closed down the business around 1965. The forests owned by the great-grandparents are still managed by their families.
In addition to these experiences, his parents’ house was hit by Typhoon No.10 in 2016. Around the same time, driftwood damage was caused by heavy rain in northern Kyushu. That is when he came up with the idea that if we could use technology to manage forests, we could prevent disasters.
The basis for “Treasure Mountain Project” was a theme chosen by Imura for DIVE (DENSO Innovative VEntures) in 2018, a new business contest within the company as part of the program to generate new business ideas for DENSO and as well as to encourage the development of human resources.
Fujii and Kato joined the draft plan and the project started. In the process of formulating the plan, they interviewed the Forest Association and lumber companies, and understood the problems of people on the site. “I felt the expectation for DENSO to tackle these problems, and I was convinced of the necessity of the forest management solution.” Imura says.
Based on the opinions of people working in the forestry field, they summarized the problems associated with the inefficiency of forest management and the fact that the technology was depending on the skills and knowledge of individuals. Then, the project team outlined the following two steps as they considered ways to utilize DENSO's technology.
Data collection of forest information
Automation of forest management operations
“First of all, we found out that the challenge was to compile data on forest information and tasks history. DENSO, which had been developing technology for autonomous driving, had know-how on sensing the surrounding environment, and we thought that we could use these technologies to solve problems in forest measurement. By applying DENSO's expertise in automotive sensing and electrification technologies, we have developed a solution for converting the data on forest information and tasks history.” (Imura)
“We are working to obtain data from within forests, rather than using conventional methods such as helicopters to measure forests from the sky. The concept is to collect data while automatically driving a small mobility inside forests utilizing the technology to measure forests without hitting trees or other obstacles. It is more accurate than the measurement from the sky. Since we can also measure the thickness of the trees at the same time, it could help us select trees to cut for thinning.”
These ideas in “Treasure Mountain Project” were developed by focusing on the construction of solutions without depending on technologies. Fujii, a key member of the project, says the forest could be transformed into a treasure mountain by collecting data.
“We learned that the core of our business was the collection of data on forests after taking surveys to field workers for multiple times while appreciating their opinions. The development of data collection and the acquisition of a wide range of forest information would lead to the realization of all kinds of ideas related to forests, such as searching for Matsutake mushrooms and edible wild plants. There is a possibility that a mountain that has been untouched now becomes a “treasure mountain.”
If we succeed in the collection of data on forests, we can see the possibility of work process automation, which is our next step. “If automatic operation of construction equipment becomes possible in the future, it will dramatically improve safety and increase the range of forests that can be managed. Data collection is essential for automation. To this end, we are working on the data collection on forests”. (Fujii)
In 2020, a team from "Treasure Mountain Project" launched a project to measure forests using mobility technology. They are making progress to develop the project as a business while reporting to management.
“By working on the project a change has happened to me”, Kato said.
“By participating in this project, I came to understand that global warming is actually progressing. Japan has not maintained forests well so far. It influences the occurrence of natural disasters. Through this project, I became aware of how our actions affect the environment and disasters." (Kato)
Creating a safe and secure mobility society through forest management
Imura describes his thoughts on the project.
"My great-grandfather planted trees in the mountains to prevent future generations from experiencing difficulties. Today, such planted forests are seen everywhere in Japan, and their lack of control-against the wishes of ancestors-is hurting people now. We need to find solutions for ourselves for forest management to make their wishes realized in the future."
“Treasure Mountain Project” aims not only to protect forests in Japan, but also to protect the forests of the entire planet. In the modern age, where abnormal climate change is occurring frequently due to the progress of global warming, and mountain disasters caused by such extreme weather changes are damaging transportation infrastructure. Therefore, protecting forests and the global environment will lead to the protection of the lives of future generations.
DENSO is promoting innovations in mobility that will enable people to move freely, and activities for environmental conservation at the same time. Automobiles emit CO2 while driving as well as during their production process. As a company whose main business is the automobile industry, we are trying our best to be committed to protecting the global environment from all perspectives and contributing broadly to society.