Palm oil industry turns to radar to detect deforestation

Preliminary results indicate that a new, radar-based monitoring system offers benefits related to the early detection of deforestation

A coalition of 10 of the world’s largest palm oil producers and buyers – including Mondelēz International, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Unilever and Wilmar – have agreed to fund and develop a publicly accessible, radar-based monitoring system to help detect deforestation.

The system – known as Radar Alerts for Detecting Deforestation (RADD) – has been designed to make it easy for companies and other stakeholders in the palm oil industry to see in near real-time and with great accuracy where deforestation is occurring.

The system is currently being developed for Indonesia and Malaysia. Preliminary results indicate that the system can detect tropical deforestation several weeks earlier than optical-based systems.

Developed in the Netherlands by Wageningen University and Satelligence, and facilitated by the World Resources Institute, the RADD system has been designed to augment existing publicly available monitoring tools that rely on optical-based satellite imagery, but which can be delayed when clouds obstruct the view of forests.

Through the use of radar waves, the new system can penetrate cloud cover to gather information on changes in forests no matter what the conditions. “What makes RADD unique is that it is the first radar-based monitoring system of this scale that will make deforestation alerts publicly available,” says a spokesman for Satelligence.

“Once the system is complete, the alerts will be available on Global Forest Watch and Global Forest Watch Pro, and the methodology behind the alerts will be published,” he adds.

The new system will utilise freely available radar data from the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A and B satellites, which orbit the earth every six to 12 days. The satellites provide high spatial detail that will improve detection of even the smallest clearing events.

Throughout the RADD system development over the next two years, partner companies will receive alerts about detected deforestation events and will provide crucial feedback to improve the system. The open nature of the system will enable companies – plus governments, civil society organisations and concerned stakeholders – to monitor forests using the same information source and standards.

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