The Science of Lidar Forest Inventories and the Trajectory of Lim Geomatics

An interview with Dr. Kevin Lim, company founder and Chief Technology Officer

Dr. Kevin Lim will deliver a presentation, The Forestry Geospatial Platform—Forestry 4.0 in Action, on the first afternoon of the 2020 edition of ForestTECHX. His talk will explore how geospatial technologies have unlocked a new digital and interconnected future for the forest industry. Dr. Lim founded Lim Geomatics in 2006 on the heels of completing his doctorate at Queen’s University. His thesis on the estimation of biophysical properties using airborne lidar remote sensing is considered one of the field’s foundational studies. Dr. Lim’s research is still widely cited and often included on mandatory reading lists for graduate students. Doug Horner, marketing specialist with Lim Geomatics, caught up with Dr. Lim to learn more about his pioneering research and how that work at Queen’s led to the creation of a company that has gone on to become a world leader in the implementation of lidar forest inventories.

Horner: Can you take us back to 2006 when you were finishing up your Ph.D. and explain some of the reasons why you decided to start a company instead of continuing along the academic path?
Dr. Lim: Lim Geo came around largely, as I think about it, as an opportunity to commercialize my Ph.D. research. My supervisor at the department of geography and planning was Dr. Paul Treitz and some of the organizations funding the project, like the Ontario Centres of Excellence, really prioritized the idea that this science could do a lot of good in the real world. When I think back to our cohort of grad students, there were only two or three of us that went to what I call the dark side—you know, private industry—and everyone else largely followed the traditional paths to the ivory towers. I always joke that I have the world’s largest research group because all of my colleagues and cohort are now professors in universities so I can easily call one up and ask them what’s happening and validate some concepts.
Horner: How did your research on lidar forest inventories improve on the existing methods for generating this kind of information about forest resources?
Dr. Lim: I can remember back in the day when you tried to describe some of these more traditional inventory products. It was sort of like sticking your thumb in your mouth and then waving it in the air. One of the main techniques was photo interpretation, and there is definitely a skillset, both an art and a science, to recognizing tree species in three-dimensional images. But it’s subjective. It depends on the person doing the interpretation. What we did with these area-based lidar inventories, or some of these advanced techniques in general, was to move it from subjective to objective so that we could repeat it. So if there was something that was inconsistent or we had new information come in, we could simply rerun the algorithm and get a different output.
Horner: Many people associate Lim Geomatics with developing user-friendly digital tools, like web and mobile applications, for the natural resources sector. How big of a factor are lidar-derived forest inventories for the company today?
Dr. Lim: Not many people realize it, but we produce the most operational area-based lidar forest inventory of any company out there. We’re getting close to the 30-million-hectare mark. And that’s worldwide. We really understand how far you can push the technology and where you can use it. We’re doing this work for the largest integrated forestry companies in the world. We work in Canada. We work in the United States with TIMOs (timber investment management organizations) and REITs (real-estate investment trusts). We work in South Africa. We’re currently making a push into Latin America.
Horner: Can you talk a bit about that process of operationalizing the science of lidar forest inventories? What was it like when the rubber hit the road in terms of putting the science into practice?
Dr. Lim: The light bulb that went off early is that we recognized that the data by itself was not useful. Even if we took the data and converted it to these information products, like these lidar forest inventories. That alone wasn’t going to get us to the finish line. We had to pair it with the right tools. So we developed tools that put the data to work by addressing specific business problems instead of just technical problems. That’s when solutions become a win-win-win—when users can ask the system a question and get a meaningful answer. Developing ways for clients to maximize the value of their investments in geospatial data is also what led Lim Geomatics to put such a high premium on design. We have user-experience designers on staff because we’ve learned that the more accessible the tool, the more valuable it becomes.
Horner: You were plugged in to the latest advancements of these technologies while at Queen’s, but how does Lim Geomatics stay on top of such a rapidly evolving field?
Dr. Lim: A lot of our people studied lidar at the graduate level. For instance, we hired Dr. Karin van Ewijk in 2019. She did her post doc with the main leading research project in Canada. So we’ve got the best, and freshest, brain trust possible. I also wear the Chief Technology Officer hat for Lim Geomatics so in that capacity I stay in touch with industry trends and getting a pulse on where things are going. Part of that means I travel a lot. This past fall I went on a seven-European-city trade mission. We met other companies with different capabilities and looked for opportunities to co-create or co-validate technologies. We don’t publish academic papers, but we do monitor the scientific literature and how we might go about operationalizing some of the literature. So it comes down to getting out there. Invest in your people to get out there. For example, we’ve gone to every Society of American Foresters conferences since 2010—not just the one that was in Hawaii.
Horner: It sounds like Lim Geomatics started with an effort to make something work, to realize the practical value of high-level science. How did that kind of beginning influence the culture of the firm?
Dr. Lim: Everyone at Lim Geomatics is curious by default. We’re comfortable knowing that it’s okay to bang your head against the wall—to be frustrated. It goes back to one of my old mentors during my undergrad. I was working on something, totally frustrated and started to rant and this person said, ‘you know what, if you weren’t banging your head against the wall then it probably means someone else has already done it so this is a good thing that this is a challenging problem.’ So we’re comfortable taking on the big challenges, but we also have fun while we’re doing it.

Source: Lim Geomatics