Technology in the woodsTechnology in the woods

With everything from IPads to drones and custom Apps, technology is hitting the woods, and it’s making pretty much everything more efficient—and safer, too.

By Paul MacDonald

Well, as they say at the Forestry Department of Vancouver Island University, it’s goodbye textbooks, hello iPads.

First-year Forestry students at Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo, B.C. are now using iPads instead of textbooks as the department goes paperless.

“We’re embarking on an exciting new approach to learning,” says Doug Corrin, instructor in the Forest Resources Technology program, who launched the initiative with colleague Bill Beese. “We’re going digital with all of our course content and forestry textbooks.”

Students use newly purchased iPads for field navigation, electronic data collection, consulting references and note taking. They will use the IPads as a camera, as a digital library at their fingertips and as a way to interact and collaborate with students and instructors.

“The iPad tablet will replace $900 in book and supply costs per student and prepare them for use of current technology in the forest industry,” says Beese. 

“We’re really excited about this initiative. Doug and I notice that our industry partners in forestry already use iPads in an effective way. Our goal as instructors is to remain current and adaptable. This is a perfect opportunity to use changing technology in the field and in classrooms to enhance student learning.”

Beese and Corrin began experimenting with iPad technology in 2014. Beese believes that “if you’re not a little bit uncomfortable with something, you’re not learning”.

“We tested the idea with a few students and it was great. One student thanked us for keeping abreast of new technology and for pushing the envelope in our classroom teaching.”

It may sound “Star-Trekish”, says Corrin, but students and staff will also link their iPads to a new remote controlled smart projector. “As a class, we can brainstorm ideas, and draw diagrams which we can save as an image and post to our classroom website. Students can take over the screen using their iPads and add to the conversation during class discussions.”

New technology is being rolled out across the forest industry. Logging and Sawmilling Journal looked at how one resources consulting firm, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants (SNRC), is utilizing technology to be more efficient and effective for clients and—not incidentally—improve safety.

Technology in the woodsAmong the apps used by Strategic Natural Resource Consultants (SNRC) is PDF Expert. SNRC has its entire EMS Manual, OHS manual and client specific information on devices—it’s like having a library an employee’s pocket, says the company. The apps can be easily used on IPhones, or IPads.

For Steve Platt, remote sensing program manager at the SNRC office in Campbell River, B.C., the VIU forestry department going paperless is not a huge surprise. Platt jointed SNRC, which has three offices on Vancouver Island, in 2006, after doing an advanced diploma in GIS at VIU. He says there has been a revolution in the use of technology, especially IPads and associated apps, and the use of LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) in the forest industry.

“When I started with SNRC in 2006, things were still being done old school, with paper maps and waterproof notepaper for the guys to use in the field, for figuring out deflection for cable yarding, for example,” he says. “Everything back then was being surveyed with clinometers and compasses.”

A few years later, he says, the firm started getting involved extensively with LiDAR “and it has really changed the way we do business on the B.C. Coast”.

“It was kind of a slow progression, advocating the technology and the forest companies getting on board, but now most of our clients have acquired LiDAR.”

Around the same time, things were starting to take off with Smart Phones—both iOS and Android.

“That seemed to be a natural fit, not just for the LiDAR technology, but for the way everything was going, says Platt. “It was not immediate, but we went from having just a few IPads to all of our field crews having IPads. And we learned almost immediately that not only do our people love it, but it increases our efficiency in the field.”

The high-res LiDAR files work well on the tablets. Field crews can zoom in, and view the equivalent of a wall-size print map on the tablet. “Traditionally, without an IPad, you’d be restricted to a map on an 11 by 17 piece of paper, and you would not be able to use the information to its full effectiveness.”

For this particular work, SNRC staff use the Avenza PDF Maps app. “That app alone, with the LiDAR datasets, has completely changed how crews work in the field.”

Another app they use is PDF Expert. “We have our entire EMS Manual, our entire OHS manual, client specific information, species at risk information on there—it’s like a library in your pocket.” The apps can be easily used on IPhones, or IPads.

“There is sometimes information that is specific to a job you are doing for a client, and this can be right down to ribbon colour. To have all that at your fingertips is amazing.”

With the apps, SNRC employees can make notes, record information and embed pictures from where they are, on the map. “For sharing information within the crew or the company, it’s unbelievable,” says Platt. They can use ‘AirDrop’, which allows employees to wirelessly share information in the woods, via a Bluetooth connection.

The apps, such as PDF Expert, have had an impact on safety, too, at SNRC. Field forms, stream cards and gully assessment cards, are now filled out digitally, saved digitally, and sent around to every member of the team digitally.

Tailgate safety meeting forms are also filled out digitally. “Whenever you do a tailgate meeting,” explained Platt, “you pull up the form, fill it in digitally, and save it. When you come back into Wi-Fi or cell range, your form is automatically sent to the safety co-ordinator or supervisor.”

They also use an app called “iAuditor” that makes it easy to carry out (and share) routine inspections such as for individual Personal Protective Equipment, company equipment, company camps, and company vehicles.”

Using LiDAR mapping, the company is able to do more planning in advance of going into the bush. They will sit down with the LiDAR mapping in the office, and do a pre-design before they go into the woods. “So before boots hit the ground, we are able to identify all sorts of possible constraints, determine the best place for the road with a very high degree of accuracy, and where the falling boundary line is likely going to be hung,” says Platt. Working in the office, they are able to run deflection lines, and determine where the yarding breaks are going to be—all of this can be done in GIS using LiDAR maps.

“The crew is efficient the second they hit the ground,” says Platt. “As soon as they are on the ground, they are hanging ribbon. In the pre-LiDAR days, they might have had to spend a week walking, criss-crossing the hillside, determining exactly where the wood is, where the yard breaks are, where the road should go.”

If a crew used to take three weeks to engineer a forestry block—lay it out and get all the surveying done—all of that can now be done in one week.

“It’s a huge change in efficiency—and safety.” The LiDAR reduces the need to check out that long corner or scramble down a cliff to determine whether yarding will work in that spot. They will know from LiDAR if it will work, says Platt.

IPhones and IPads are all linked to Emergency Response Plans. If there is an incident in the field, staff find out where the employee is, click on an online link on their custom digital signout board, and the ERP for that location and client will automatically come on screen.

An App that SNRC has recently started using with clients is Slack—which is a misleading name because it is no way slack in its capabilities.

Slack allows team members to keep in close touch with each other, share files, upload files and link to other files. They use Slack with full phase logging clients, so all members of a team can be in the loop with planning, right through to engineering, logging operations, and silviculture. “This opens up the lines of communication, not just between the planners and the clients, but right through to operations and logging. It means the person in the office working with the LiDAR plans can have direct communication with the contract supervisor in charge of building the road. Really, it’s never been more efficient to get a tree from the bush into the water.”

One of the more interesting developments involves wildfire management. SNRC usually does a scanning program in a wildfire situation, sending a crew up in a helicopter with an infrared camera to scan for hotspots and fires. Maps are then put together for field crews, and field crews then go and tackle the hotspots.

“Trying to find those hotspots is not easy, since they are marked from the air,” says Platt. “They are basically throwing a ribbon down at hotspots from 200 feet up.”

Thermal imaging company FLIR Systems has come out with an infrared attachment for IPhones. “These days everyone is packing a smartphone, so you can give one of these to a crew member, and be able to find hotspots right in the field using an affordable infrared camera attachment—it’s much more efficient.”

It’s no surprise that all of the technology has led to drones being used in forest management. SNRC started flying their drone program in the spring of 2015. Platt says the information gathered by drones can complement LiDAR, such as in doing volumetric analysis.

“We did a drone project on northern Vancouver Island, where a company was building road, and they needed before and after surveys of the roadwork being done,” he explained. “Before the work started, we sent up a drone, did photogrammetry, which gives a 3-D view of the area. And then we went back this past spring, after the work was done, to determine how much volume was moved.”

Drones can be especially useful when it comes to doing survey work, he added, such as brushing and free to grow surveys.

Platt emphasized that SNRC employees operating a drone in remote areas have to take a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) ground school course. If the drone flights are closer to population centres, the operators need a Special Flight Operator’s Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada. “I could not take our drone outside the office here in Campbell River and legally fly it without a SFOC in place.”

Platt said Transport Canada has generally been more forward thinking their colleagues to the south, the FAA, when it comes to drones. “But then we have a lot more open space up here in Canada, and fewer security concerns,” he added.

Technology in the woodsUsing LiDAR mapping, Strategic Natural Resource Consultants is able to do more planning in advance of going into the bush. Company staff will sit down with the LiDAR mapping in the office, and do a pre-design before they go into the woods.

IPads have built-in GPS, but it is not accurate enough for doing surveying under heavy canopy. SNRC usually have Trimble GPS units, that deliver mapping grade accuracy in difficult conditions. But Trimble has come out with a less expensive, new system that marries with the IPad and delivers mapping grade data, called Trimble Leap. “It connects wirelessly to the IPad, which becomes the data collector.”

Unrelated to I-Pads are the InReach satellite tracking locators, that at one time just sent out one-way signals, but now offer two-way texting. “When our crews are isolated and there isn’t cell service, they will take one of the InReach locators, and use them for check-ins, so we know they are safe.” That comes in handy operating on the B.C. Coast. “We have crews on the mid-coast that will have very limited communication options,” says Platt.

An improvement in safety has been the biggest payback with technology improvement, he says.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that technology and innovation is usually driven by being more efficient—but the biggest spinoff benefit is safety.”

Proof of this is SNRC’s safety record. The year 2010 was a very busy year for the company. It had a lot of wildfire crews in the bush that year, and a lot of exposure hours, and a company-wide 370 lost time days. “That’s a large number, but it’s not unreasonable for a company our size, and considering what we were involved with that year.”

Since that year, there has been far more use of LiDAR and I-Pads—and in 2015, SNRC had a total of only six LTA’s. “That is an unreal number—it’s been a staggering reduction in injuries. And during that time, our company has not shrunk—it has grown in size.

“The technology has absolutely had an impact. Crews are not having to go into risky spots anymore—they can look on the LiDAR map and know that it works, and can see the trees that are going to be yarded.”

More general, and safety, benefits could still be in the offing.

“What might end up happening—with the use of LiDAR for development planning—is that we could see an increase in safety and efficiency on the logging side, because the engineering should be better, you should have the best road locations possible, the best yarding based on those road locations, and you should be harvesting in the most efficient way.”

Technology in the woodsWith LiDAR delivering a highly detailed map of an area, SNRC can go to forestry clients with a pre-design for the client’s review. If changes need to be made, they can be made at the planning stage—rather than on the ground, as has been the case in the past.

Platt says some forest companies have been faster than others at adopting the new technology. “We have some clients that don’t want to be on the bleeding edge of technology—they’ll let others figure it out and, once it’s proven, they will come in and adopt it.” Others see the benefits quickly, especially if they are operating on private land. Island Timberlands was one of the first forest companies to fly their land base with LiDAR.

And, he noted, LiDAR is more than just highly detailed maps. “It’s very powerful—in the right hands, you can do forestry inventory modeling, hydraulic modeling, geotechnical modeling and get more value out of the data.”

As for using the IPad out in the field, that was an easy sell, says Platt. “All you need is one day out in the field with an IPad loaded with maps, loaded with digital field cards, and people are sold. They say they have to have one.”

In the course of six years, the IPads, says Platt, have truly revolutionized how they do their work in the bush, and in the office.

And SNRC moving forward so quickly with technology would not have been possible without the full support of the company’s founders, Jonathan Lok and Niels Jorgensen, emphasized Platt.

What about that much talked about prediction about the paperless office? “Well,” says Platt, motioning to files of paper on his desk, “we are not completely paperless, as you can see from my office.” But, he adds, you probably could be soon. Technology marches on. “Look, we are flying drones now. Did I think that I would be flying drones when I joined the company in 2006—no way.”

But what has been surprising—and been the most rewarding for SNRC—has been the impact it has had on safety.

“It is one thing to be more efficient and to be able to do more with less, using technology. But to be able to see the change in safety, well, that’s something else.

“I really saw a change when more of our clients starting having LiDAR available, when we started having tablets and started using digital safety forms, digital ERPs that can be accessed anywhere at anytime. And to see our safety numbers follow that trend down over that same period.”

There’s no doubt efficiency is hugely important in keeping the forest industry competitive. But to have an impact, and reduce injuries and, perhaps even reduce the number of fatalities in the industry, well, you can’t measure the importance of that, says Platt.

“I would think that down the road, we will see an impact on the operations side, on the logging side. One less fatality would make it all worthwhile.”

Logging and Sawmilling Journal
July/August 2016

On the Cover:
Everything is in place for the largest live logging equipment show in North America this year—DEMO 2016, to be held at the UBC Research Forest near Vancouver from September 22-24—and the package is impressive. Read all about DEMO beginning on page 38 of this issue.

IS MEXICO RIPE FOR THE PICKING—for Canadian softwood lumber producers?
It was smiles all around at the recent “Three Amigos” Summit in Ottawa, hosted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with guests President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. But the summit has now got some in the industry wondering how they can expand lumber exports to Mexico.

Logging safety net
A decision by Alberta’s Barmac Contracting to diversify, and be involved in logging, is now paying off and proving to be a solid safety net, with the dramatic drop in activity in the oilpatch.

Ramping it up
Fraser Valley contractor D. Lind Logging has ramped up its equipment line-up considerably in recent years and the family operation is now a full-on stump-to-dump contractor, and able to take on more volume.

Getting back into logging
Having built a successful gravel business, B.C.’s Lincoln Douglas decided to re-enter logging six years ago, doing work in southwestern B.C., and is now looking to get into the value-added sector with a small sawmilling operation.

LSJ Show Guide --DEMO 2016
Full details on the largest logging equipment show this year: DEMO 2016, being held in Maple Ridge, B.C., including a list of exhibitors, schedule of events, site map.

Technology in the woods
With everything from IPads to drones and custom Apps, technology is hitting the woods, and it’s making pretty much everything more efficient—and safer, too.

SOLID SAFETY commitment
West Fraser Timber has a from the top down commitment to safety, which is reflected in the solid safety strategies employed at one of its operations in the B.C. Interior, its Pacific Inland Resources division.

Steep slope logging, European-style
Ponsse dealer ALPA Equipment recently demo’ed some European steep slope logging equipment to two of New Brunswick’s largest forestry operators, to help meet the growing interest in what’s available in steep slope logging technology.

Scaling back log scaling costs
Interfor’s Acorn sawmill in Surrey, B.C. now has the first government certified legal-for-trade log scanner in North America, and it’s reducing scaling costs while providing more accurate log measurements.

Future forests resilient to climate change?
A forestry trial in the B.C. Interior could very well provide some clues into what future forests could look like, in the wake of the mountain pine beetle—and those forests could have increased resilience to climate change.

The Edge
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates - Bio Solutions and FPInnovations.

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