Monitoring a forest plantation used to present a significant challenge, requiring spending hundreds of hours measuring tree heights and locations out in the field. Now, the development of new methods of near surface remote sensing is making it easier than ever to measure and map forests in three dimensions on a regular basis, but at the same time is producing more data than can be easily dealt with.

Recently, researchers have been facing an exponential growth of this problem as more and more drones and automatic monitoring stations become cheap and easy tools for research, producing large quantities of data that, while amazing in their novelty and complexity, still have very few tools available for viewing and interacting with them intuitively.

NCI's VizLab and Dr Tim Brown from The Australian National University's Research School of Biology are producing new software that will allow easy visualisation of these types of environmental data, especially in the form of point clouds. Point clouds are a type of 3 dimensional model of the environment produced from drones flights and laser scans.  They can be used to map the size, location, color and other important characteristics of objects in the environment at high resolution. This data, gathered over an entire forest, can provide a clear image of what each individual tree looks like, how it grows over time and where it is placed in relation to the others.

Point clouds of an area can be gathered from airplanes, drones or from the ground; the challenge is bringing all those separate datasets into one single viewer. NCI is building the software and data management systems that will allow multiple point cloud sources to be viewed simultaneously, in virtual reality. This requires accurate GPS data to accompany each dataset, and access to storage and cloud services which provide the computational power needed to integrate all the data together.

Dr Brown's team, along with the ACT Government and CSIRO, has spent the last few years gathering point cloud data in the ACT. Dr Brown's dataset focuses on a forest in the National Arboretum, and when paired with the others, forms a detailed map of the changes in the forest over the last few years.

Critically, once you have multiple point clouds taken of your area of interest over a period of time, you can create a time-lapse component to the visualisation and see the trees grow and the landscapes change. The new tool allows data such as tree height, growth rate or even tree genetic variation to be mapped onto each tree.  Dr Brown says "More and more researchers would like 3D models of their plants, but there aren't any tools designed for interacting with a time-lapse stack of point clouds and their associated data. The ability to continuously measure the world in very high resolution has the potential to revolutionise scientific research."

"With tools such as those we are creating, in a few years, a researcher could call up a hologram of their forest on their desk and tap a tree to show the data associated with it. They could rearrange the forest by height or growth rate or genetic markers. They could discuss an analysis with a colleague on the other side of the world while simultaneously viewing the same 3D model in real-time."

"These sorts of tools can completely change our ability to do science with increasingly complex data."