How OpenForests poked the box and developed innovative Forest Information Services.

Becoming a professional

How do we become professionals? A general opinion is that we become professionals by gaining special skills through higher education and further training.

My experience, however, was different. Only after graduation, the real learning process started. The things I had learned before did not sufficiently help to answers the questions and problems I had with my job.

At OpenForests we learned by trial and error — trying it out, failing, trying it again — to eventually find a solution for our questions and problems.

All of this was in contradiction to how we generally understand professional workmanship:

  • Instead of being knowledgeable, we had no answers right away.
  • Instead of working accurately, we applied trial and error.
  • Instead of delivering on time, it had taken us often much longer than expected to come to a viable solution.

In this personal article, I want to share experiences of how we built up and developed OpenForests into an organization that enables sustainable projects to manage and present their forest information more efficiently.

The goal of sharing these experiences is not to shine light on OpenForests. The goal is to tell a true story. A story that might challenge and change the self-perception of what it means to become a professional.

Based on a learning sequence we had while developing our drone services, I want to give an example of how the process of trial and error — “poking the box”— has become a central part of our work.

We want to motivate every professional to not play safe. Instead, challenge yourself by exploring new ways to innovate and learn.

The journey starts or how we poke the box

Almost eight years ago, three young men came together in order to find ways to enable people to develop more transparent, social, biodiverse, resilient and sustainable forestry projects.

(left to right) Stefan Haas, Alexander Watson, Patrick Ribeiro in the back of a car heading towards the jungle.

Graduated in geoecology, forestry, and physics, we started out to find interesting sustainable projects that we could support with our professional forest information services.

We believe, that more accurate and up-to-date information improves decision-making. Current and high-resolution aerial photography is a very powerful tool to obtain information from inaccessible and large forest areas. We needed a practical and low-cost method that could deliver imagery of higher resolution then that of satellite imagery with immediate results.

Mounting a light-weight consumer grade camera with a helium ballon.

First try

We started out to take our first aerial images with the help of a tiny tourist camera mounted on a helium balloon. Yes, we shot some nice pictures from the birds-eye perspective and gained an initial overview of small forest patches.

However, this approach was far from being efficient and practical. Georeferencing and generation of orthophoto maps were impossible and it obviously turned out, that operating a balloon on a rope in an old grown forest, was not the best method.

We didn’t consider beforehand, that the slightest wind would push the ballon to the ground and make camera manipulation impossible.

Second try

But we did not stop there. We continued to poke the box. The initial beautiful photos from the forest canopy have inspired us to improve our approach. We needed a more precise control of the photo camera in the three-dimensional space to make forest mapping more efficient.

At this time, first drones were appearing on the market. We decided to purchase one of the first do-it-yourself construction kits for a multi-copter drone.

Our initial drone workshop.

After understanding the construction plans, we spent weeks of soldering the parts together for a working drone, that could fly, with a mounted camera for mapping work.

Octocopter able to mount a high-quality SLR camera.

What seems to be easy with today’s commercial drones required extensive fine-tuning at that time. A few crashes later, and always accompanied by a high dose of adrenaline, our drone operator finally captured the first breathtaking aerial photos.

(top left) Forest canopy in Suriname, (top right) river island in Ecuador and (bottom) East cost of Colombia.

We were now able to shoot beautiful photos, and to map up to 100 hectares a day under ideal conditions. We went out and offered this opportunity to forest projects. It turned out, that they liked the idea, but, they needed much higher capacities, talking of hundreds and thousands of hectares.

The short flight times of copter drones did not allow large-scale mappings required by forestry projects. Again, we had to become more professional.

Had we waisted time and money again? No, in the course of testing, we found out, that copter drones are very strong in precisely positioning a camera in one place. By taking photos in all directions, we figured out how to generate very high-resolution interactive 360° aerial panoramas.

Click the image to see the aerial 360° panorama, Borneo, Central Kalimantan, Indonesia.

On this journey, we had developed a virtual tour service, that allows people from around the world to explore project sites through the interactive ground and aerial panoramas. Our clients love these panoramas. Follow the links to explore some projects with aerial 360° panoramas.

Third try

We did not stop here. We wanted to map large forest projects and searched the market for drone solutions. It was obvious that we needed a fixed-wing drone for long-range flights. This time we thought we could be smarter and bypass the in-house technical development, so we purchased a professional off-the-shelf fixed-wing drone system.

A quite huge consulting contract for this time has taken us to Suriname to map the forest damages in reduced impact logging forest concessions. We had successfully tested the drone several times back in Germany. Now we proudly launched the drone on a too narrow forest road, in the middle of nowhere in the dense jungle. Unfortunately, the drone’s taking-off behavior was different from what we had experienced in our tests.

It was heavy setback and an unprofessional image when it crashed into the next tree on the roadside.

Drone crash.

After getting the drone out of the tree, we found essential electronics burned.

Without a full functioning drone, we would have lost an existential contract and income.

Fourth try

However, we had to somehow fight our way back. We purchased the broken spare parts and tried to repair the drone.

However, without the wiring information, it was impossible. As this was a proprietary drone system the manufacturer first refused to help us with information to repair the drone. It took us two weeks, many e-mail requests and Skype calls, even with the CEO of the drone company, to receive the needed support.

Finally, we were able to repair the drone.

Repairing the fixed-wing drone in our holiday apartment in Suriname.

Having solved this problem, we painfully recognized that the basic conditions had not changed. The narrow forest roads remained too narrow and in some cases were overgrown by trees. It was too risky to launch the drone the standard way. We had to think deeply about alternatives.

Fifth try

Somehow we had to get the drone above the 40-meter high canopy, without hitting a tree. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to lift the fixed-wing drone above the canopy with the help of the copter drone and release it there at a safe height to start its mapping mission? Considering today’s hybrid drones smartly designed for vertical take-off, this idea was quite clumsy. Though, we had no alternative. We tested it, and yes, this time it worked out.

We finally successfully managed to map the concessions and were able to process the imagery with astonishing results.

Sixth try

We were back in the game! We learned a lot, but we poked the box further. For the next mapping, we needed a drone system, that was able to fly longer distances allowing us to select optimal sites for taking off and landing. Further, the technology needed to be robust and able to be repaired on the spot.

Another crash.

Learning more about the open source drone technology, the hardware, software, and available sensors, we recognized, that this technology was more suitable to serve our needs of mapping large forest areas in remote locations. We acquired an open-source fixed-wing construction kit, assembled the drone and tested it. And as you might guess, yes, we crashed again!

Nevertheless, we got into this technology and learned to map and process photo maps covering thousands of hectares. We provided these maps as web maps to our clients, which they used to transparently document and present their project progress to their stakeholders.This link will guide you to a web map with several thousands of hectares mapped with our open source drone system.

We have become an advocate for very affordable open source drone technology. As a small company, we have limited capacities to travel around the world and do project mappings. In addition to the mapping work, we started to offer drone pilot workshops to train groups of different organizations and projects to enable them to do their own mappings using, open source drone systems.

Looking back

This was a long journey, and methods and technologies we are using today have changed significantly.

But what remains are the lasting experiences we made on this journey of trial and error. We have poked the box hard with the following results:

  • We have failed several times.
  • We bought the wrong equipmentfor a certain type of application.
  • But we learned to build, fly, and repair drones, a very helpful skill in remote areas.
  • We accomplished challenging mapping missions.
  • We developed a new successful product on the fly: interactive high-resolution 360° aerial panoramas.
  • We learned to map thousands of hectares with very affordable open-source drone equipment.
  • As well as doing it ourselves, we scaled mapping capacity by training organizations and projects with affordable open source drone systems.
  • Most importantly, we learned to not give up. Not to give up to solve problems in a team and to continuously innovate.

Now it’s up to you to decide which path you choose. Whether you simply train your skills in a safe environment and do a standardized every day professional work,


you own the problem, take the journey and find ways to solve it. You might not have an answer right away and this can be worrying. But, if you consistently poke the box, you could fail or perhaps find a solution. Most likely you will find out much more. You will discover new ways and opportunities by thinking broader and deeper. For sure, you will learn to get better at solving problems.

Isn’t this what a professional lives for?

By the way, as more projects have started to create their own drone maps, we have established an online platform to host all these projects, their maps and stories. Find out more — share your landscape story
I invite you to explore the story of my landscape project on

Thanks for reading! 🙂 Please forward this article if you liked it to friends, young professionals and colleagues.

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Founder and CEO, OpenForests. Passioned about finding answers to the burning questions of our time. With our tools, we want to connect people and forests.