“The forest needs innovation and technology: rePLANT has already registered patents in five countries.”, Expresso

20 de June de 2023

rePLANT is a project led by the paper company The Navigator Company and the association ForestWISE, which is dedicated to researching and developing technologies for forest management and fire prevention. Carlos Fonseca, Chief Technology Officer of ForestWISE, revealed to Expresso SER the main innovations of this laboratory that is already in its third year.

Figures from the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests show that 36% of Portuguese territory is occupied by forest, with eucalyptus (26%), maritime pine (22%) and cork oak (22%) being the species that occupy the largest forest area. Altogether, the wild spaces (which include forest, brush, unproductive land and inland water areas) cover about 70% of the country and the management of all this territory poses major challenges in terms of fire prevention and fighting, pest risks and invasive species, as well as the need to monetize the soil.

It was to try and put technology at the service of solving these and other forestry-related problems that this project emerged three years ago, bringing together more than 20 entities, from major companies in the sector to universities and innovation laboratories. This consortium is led by The Navigator Company and ForestWISE, a non-profit association that promotes integrated forest and fire management, and it was with the Chief Technology Officer of this collaborative laboratory that Expresso SER reviewed the three years of activity of this project.

You have already invested 5.6 million euros to support research and innovations in this area. And what are these innovations? For example, a system was developed to monitor the integrity of the assets of REN and the forest, which consists of the installation of a set of devices and sensors in the field that provide information in real time. Or smartphones that perform a forest inventory or estimate and monitor the amounts of biomass present in a given forest area.

Carlos Fonseca has a PhD in biology from the University of Aveiro and is currently ForestWISE’s Chief Technology Officer and guest associate professor at the Department of Biology, University of Aveiro.

For those who don’t know, what is rePlant?

rePLANT was launched in 2020. It was born from the need to develop integrated and innovative solutions that guarantee the sustainable management of Portuguese forests, so that they are cared for, protected and are a source of wealth for owners, communities and the country.

At a time when it is urgent to find sustainable development models, rePLANT, as a mobilizing project, embodies an unprecedented effort to bring to the field the priority initiatives of leading forestry and energy companies together with universities, R&DT institutions and technology-based companies, focusing on an integrated approach to forest and fire management.

Who are the partners involved in this project?

The project is led by The Navigator Company, in collaboration with CoLAB ForestWISE – Collaborative Laboratory for Integrated Forest and Fire Management.

It involved 20 entities, bringing together the best technical and scientific expertise with the most important business fabric of the Portuguese forestry sector. In addition to Navigator and ForestWISE, the project involved the following entities: Altri Florestal, Amorim Florestal, DS Smith, Sonae Arauco, whereness, EDP labelec, Trigger Systems, Fravizel, E-REDES, REN, INESC TEC, Tesselo, Florecha – Produtores Agro-Florestais da Charneca, INIAV, University of Coimbra, Higher Institute of Agronomy, Faculty of Engineering of the University of Porto and University of Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro.

What is your assessment of these three years of activity?

The project has shown that it is possible to create products and results that contribute to the socio-economic development of the country, while protecting biodiversity and the well-being of society. We, therefore, have a very positive balance. The sector must continue to have the ability to reinvent itself and apply the best techniques and tools, responding to major societal challenges based on sustainable forestry that promotes and enhances the circular bioeconomy.

What innovations have you already created in the field of integrated forest and fire management?

rePLANT has resulted in eight technologies tested, three new pieces of equipment developed, 10 pilot tests, two decision support systems, nine technical manuals to improve forest management and, among others, eight demonstration actions. These are numbers that show the quality of the project’s research and technological development. The forest needs innovation and technology.

Can you give two or three concrete examples?

There are many projects and technologies that deserve to be highlighted. The development of new technologies in various areas has made possible the access to a set of products that, until recently, were unthinkable. This has been possible thanks to the commitment of companies, universities and research and innovation centers.

For example, to provide greater protection, prediction and anticipation of the impact of rural fires, the integrated system for monitoring the integrity of REN’s assets and forests was developed. This system consists of the installation of a set of devices and sensors which, by providing a wide range of information, makes it possible to understand in real time what events exist and predict how they may evolve over time.

Methodologies have also been applied to help explain the risks associated with burning, a practice that is culturally widespread among the population, but that has often been associated with rural fires and ecological and socio-economic impacts.

Beyond fire, rePLANT has played an important role in creating more resilient forests and pine forest revitalization by studying Pinus spp. species/provenances with greater resistance to pests/diseases and climate change and, consequently, capable of generating greater income for forest producers.

rePlant has already invested 5.6 million euros. Who finances these projects?

The project had a budget of 5.6 million euros, being supported in 3.3 million euros by Compete/Portugal 2020, through the Competitiveness and Innovation Operational Program (POCI) and the Lisbon 2020 Operational Program. The remaining 2.3 million were assumed by the project partners.

Is there a logic of monetizing these projects, in the sense of trying to commercialize some of these innovations?

Yes, in fact, several. One of them concerns new technologies that help to better understand the forest, using smartphones for forest inventory or to estimate and monitor the amounts of biomass present in a given forest area, supporting the decision on intervention priorities.

Do you already have patents registered?

The rePLANT project allowed the development of patents in five countries. Focused on the automation and decarbonization of processes of cleaning and preparation of land for planting, Fravizel, one of the consortium partners, developed and manufactured the riper grade implement and the brush cutter. This company focuses on the development of innovative technologies for the forest that enable its social, economic and environmental sustainability. This is an innovative partnership in strong development.

Will rePLANT continue into the future?

rePLANT was the beginning of a disruptive process that will never end. The success of this project has reinforced the need to strengthen collaboration between entities from the entire forestry value chain to continue some of the results obtained and to propose new areas of development. This framework gave rise to the transForm megaproject, the Mobilizing Agenda promoted under the Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP), which has 56 partners, 28 projects that will be developed over the next 3 years, with a total investment of about 130 million euros.

This opportunity results from the commitment of CoLAB ForestWISE, its associates and partners, which has enabled the country and the stakeholders in the forestry area to compete, in the Innovation Agendas of the Recovery and Resilience Plan, with initiatives from other sectors of the Portuguese economic fabric. CoLAB ForestWISE has assumed enormous relevance in a very short time, and is now an essential player in the fields of forestry and fire in Portugal.

In terms of public policies, do you think the State has done enough in terms of fire prevention and fighting strategies?

After 2017, many documents and reports have exposed the weaknesses of the whole system and pointed to directions to reverse the situations identified. Prevention, awareness, knowledge, capacity building, planning and active management took the reins of the defined strategy, as set out in the National Plan for Integrated Management of Rural Fires, under the coordination of AGIF – Agency for the Integrated Management of Rural Fires. Its implementation will necessarily have to be gradual and the results are expected in the medium to long term and not in an immediate way. I believe that we are in the process of “moving into the field”, to which CLAB ForestWISE has contributed in a very constructive and assertive way.

In, Expresso, 2 June 2023 (PT)