Saving Forests, Protecting the Environment, and Reducing Suburban Sprawl
Forests are threatened when owners can earn more selling them to developers than maintaining them as forests. Dr. Robert Baldwin is the Margaret H. Lloyd SmartState Endowed Research Chair in Urban Ecology in Clemson's Forestry and Environmental Conservation Department. He is passionate about helping owners save their forest properties which helps protect the environment and reduce suburban sprawl.
Carbon credits can be earned by forest owners when carbon removed from the atmosphere is stored in trees and soil. Among stringent rules that must be met to receive carbon credits are periodic field measurements of forest growth and the associated capture and storage of carbon. Measurements are often done through analysis of satellite imagery and models of forest growth and deforestation. Carbon benefits must be verified by an accredited independent third party to receive carbon credits.
Described below is how an Innovation Collaboration Agreement (ICA) can be crafted around this opportunity using the Great Jobs Through Innovation Excellence Act (Great Jobs) Innovation Ecosystem Framework (click for a more detailed graphic).
Dr. Baldwin leads the Forest Futures project at Clemson and Furman, where faculty and students have found that satellite image analysis often underestimates the amount of carbon stored in a forest. Drones equipped with LiDAR may provide carbon estimates that are more accurate and precise than those derived solely from satellite data. More accurately estimating the carbon stored in trees and the soil may help forest property owners maximize the carbon credits they earn, allowing them to maintain their property as forest rather than selling it to developers who will contribute to the suburban sprawl we all want to avoid.
Developing the system requires the design and manufacturer of drone hardware. Current sensors are underdeveloped and so underestimate the amount of carbon in trees. Another part of the innovation is software, including artificial intelligence applications that analyze the data collected by the drones and helps the owner manage their forest. Other research at Clemson and at other SC universities can aid with the development of the hardware and software elements of a drone system.
Market Pull Innovation
The largest cash crop in South Carolina is pine trees, so we have lots of forests to protect. A drone system can help preserve SC forests in South Carolina and once operational here can grow across the country and around the world.
The trigger to Great Jobs funding Dr. Baldwin's research is an industry partner matching that funding as an investment in Dr. Baldwin's research, or as an investment in an industry innovation center or in an entrepreneurial company that would hire Dr. Baldwin's graduating students to commercialize this innovation in South Carolina.
For example, a major timber company such as Weyerhaeuser with a huge interest in preserving SC forest might invest in an innovation center that could hire Dr. Baldwin's students to commercialize the innovation. Sealevel Systems in Easley might be a good candidate to manufacture the drone hardware and invest in expanding their facility to commercialize the solution. The Economic Development Alliance of Pickens County might be the lead economic development agency that is a party to the RCA to ensure that the proper incentives are available for both the innovation and manufacturing facilities.
Perhaps there is an opportunity for Dr. Baldwin's students to start an entrepreneurial company to be the accredited independent third party that verifies carbon storage to qualify for carbon credits. SC Launch can be a party to the ICA to provide initial funding and assistance, and to help attract a large venture capital investment to match the Great Jobs investment in Dr. Baldwin's research.
Commercialization and Workforce Development
Tri-County Tech might be the lead technical college that is a party to the ICA involved to train the workforce necessary to operate the drone system in South Carolina as well as to produce systems for sales elsewhere. The RCA will also include engagement with K-12 teachers and students to inspire SC students to pursue STEM careers.
All of the organizations necessary to develop and commercialize the innovation and the workforce already exist. The ICA is a vehicle for pulling them together to develop a consensus about how to commercialize Dr. Baldwin's research and hire his students as they graduate.
The best form of knowledge transfer is through people. CoEE built the research capacity by getting chairs like Dr. Baldwin in place that creates the pipeline of talent. The glass is half full. Dr. Baldwin's students are the best-trained people to lead the commercialization of his research as they are employed in industry and entrepreneurial companies. Great Jobs needs to ensure that the best career opportunities for many of those students are in South Carolina so they don't need to leave the state to find high-wage jobs.