RoboForester. Technical innovation in the data age

Mobile technology touches every aspect of our lives, and of course forestry is no exception.

The tools of the forester’s trade have changed little over the decades. A girth tape, a clinometer and a variety of jackets for all weather conditions are still very much the backbone of any forester’s kit bag. 

In part this is because the fundamentals of harvesting and planting trees do not change but it is also because much of the technical innovation is invisible. 

For example, while the advent of mechanical harvesting or the end of deep peat ploughing has a noticeable effect on the ground, the widespread adoption of mapping software is not visible to the public although it has perhaps had a more significant impact on the industry. 

Mobile data collection looks set to revolutionise the industry as data becomes increasingly available within the forest itself. 

Mapping software goes mobile 

Foresters have always relied on good maps to measure and quantify crops, to plan strategies and to communicate with others. Mapping software has been in use in the industry for about 20 years and is now considered an essential tool. More recently this technology has been combined with mobile devices to provide innovative solutions to on-site problems. 

James Jones & Sons has developed a system which warns lorry drivers of hazards when they arrive at a site. An alarm in the cab can warn a driver about the risk of an overhead powerline –a leading cause of deaths in the forest industry. Work is currently under way to look at fitting this technology in all UK timber lorries. 

John Deere has been upgrading the on-board computers in its harvesting machinery so that it can both record the wood products processed and also track the location of the machine and display this on a map. This means operators can track their progress in real time and provide accurate map updates for the forester. Site hazards can also be added to the map. 

Free apps like Avenza Maps allow foresters to share PDF maps they have created with contractors. The software uses the inbuilt GPS of a tablet or mobile phone to display the map with a location marker for where the user is. This technology has a wide range of applications including simple data collection but is most valuable as a much improved way to communicate operational plans with contractors. Combined with paper maps, this technology can give both foresters and contractors peace of mind that they are working in the right place without the need for time-consuming and confusing marking out of sites. 

Tackling the internet black spots 

As many people in rural areas know, modern technology is wonderful… so long as you have good internet connection. For forestry applications, it is essential to find apps that work offline, even if you need to upload or download data when you next get a signal. 

When working in remote locations with no internet or phone signal, it is also essential to have some means to summon help if required. InReach Explorer uses satellite technology to allow two-way communications in these areas. This is a major step forward from other systems where an alert is raised but there is no way to get further details of a potential casualty. This is particularly important now that emergency services are increasingly prioritising their response based on need. Alerts with no further information may not be treated as a priority. 

Other mobile phone apps can immediately give you the full grid reference of your location, which can then be passed on to the emergency services. People working in remote areas can also register their phone number with the emergency services so that they can communicate with them by text message where there is limited, patchy or emergency-only phone signal. 

Going airborne – Drones for forestry 

Drones are increasingly being used for forest surveys. They can give an overview assessment of a forest crop far faster than a walk-over survey and potentially avoiding the need for dangerous walking through windblown crops. In combination with Lidar technology, they could soon make it possible to have much more frequent and more accurate forest inventories. 

Drones are also being developed to carry out chemical spraying. This again has the potential to be much faster than human application and would also reduce the exposure of individuals to harmful chemicals. 

New technology, new questions 

New technologies are a double-edged sword. There are efficiency savings and health and safety improvements but also challenges and new questions. 

One of these issues is data protection. Data sharing technologies make communicating information much easier, but it also important to retain control over who has access to information and who can edit it. 

The forest industry is very segmented and has always worked in the past on the basis of trust when information has to be shared between parts of the supply chain. 

Sharing digital information in a non-editable format may be no great change, but sharing raw data would be a new challenge. For instance, a harvesting company may carry out a drone survey of an area of woodland for a harvesting tender. If it does not win the tender, it may still hold a copy of the data that it produced. Is this a problem?  

The cost of producing data is also a consideration. Data, in terms of knowing where there are certain trees with certain qualities, is of most value to the mills who can then essentially treat woodlands like an extension of their log store, allowing them to respond quickly to customer requests. However the cost of producing good data is most likely, or most sensibly, to be borne by the owner. So how can we ensure that the value of that data is passed back down the supply chain?  

Once the data exists, there are also ways in which harvesting foresters, machine operators and even lorry drivers could benefit from it, so what would be a fair way to account for this value? 

To avoid unnecessary duplication, it would make sense to generate one set of data and then share it between all these parts of the supply chain, but how do we ensure that all these companies’ different IT systems are compatible? 

 

In general, attitudes to sharing information seem to be changing. How this can be balanced in a commercial setting against the rights to data protection, privacy and ownership of data is a challenge faced by many industries, not just forestry. 

In the long term, finding a successful balance will depend on the human networks that we develop around these technologies. Trust in the current system is built on familiarity and relationships up and down the supply chain. Trust in these new technologies can be built in the same way, through another invisible revolution.