Steve’s Extreme Excavation, Potlatch, IdahoTelematics Technology

Technology Promises to Be a Game Changer for Forest Operations

By Andrea Watts

Telematics technology has revolutionized business operations, and we have come to depend upon real-time global positioning systems (GPS) in our daily lives, whether to track the status of a package, receive turn-by-turn instructions while driving, or to know when the next bus will arrive. For the logging industry, however, the full potential of telematics technology has yet to be realized. Inside the cab of a state-of-the-art feller buncher, an operator can view a map of the harvest unit, but this is a superficial use of telematics technology—not when the use of real-time GPS could show the positions of hand fallers or when a skidder is approaching the landing. And it’s these capabilities that University of Idaho researchers are currently evaluating with the goal of bringing them out to the jobsite.

“It seemed like a game changer for the industry on the production side and on the safety side, and just the general advancement in all the technology we use in logging,” explains Robert (Rob) Keefe, an assistant professor of Forest Operations and forest manager of the University of Idaho Experimental Forest, as the reason he decided to research the use of telematics technology on logging operations.

Challenges of Telematics Technology

In 2014, with assistance from Idaho’s Associated Logging Contractors Inc., Keefe received a three-year grant from the National Institute of Health and the CDC National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to evaluate and develop tools that could help increase safety on the jobsite. Keefe says his team decided to focus on how current GPS systems and mobile devices could be integrated to display the real-time locations of workers and equipment.

There are a couple reasons why telematics technology hasn’t made inroads into the logging industry. One is that positioning software relies on access to the Internet, something that’s hard to come by where there aren’t cell towers around. Second, accurate GPS and Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) locations rely on a clear line of sight to the overhead satellites, which isn’t possible when working under a conifer canopy. (GPS utilizes the American satellite system, while GNSS utilizes the global system.)

To learn whether contractors would want to integrate telematics technology into logging operations, and if so, what resources they would need, Keefe’s team surveyed and interviewed nearly 240 contractors participating in Idaho’s Professional Logger Certification Program.

Keefe says they learned that contractors recognize the safety applications, such as knowing where the hand fallers are working and whether a yarder operator can see if the rigging crew is in the clear before yarding logs up the hill. However, he says, “Some of the concern about [using] the applications is if the contractors start relying on it too much, and if the accuracy isn’t good, it could introduce problems.”

Another concern was whether this technology would interfere with their ability to make decisions. Keefe recognizes that these are important concerns but says that the goal of using real-time GPS/GNSS isn’t to take away from the experience that operators bring to the job, rather to give them more information. “It’s really about the logger having more awareness of the situation,” he says.

Steve’s Extreme Excavation, Potlatch, IdahoPhotos taken by Ryer Becker while working with Jesse Hunt to collect data for developing equipment activity profiles

Various Systems Being Evaluated

Keefe and his team are evaluating several different kinds of systems that can be used in logging. Among the deliverables that Keefe and his team decided to create is an app that operators could download to a mobile phone or tablet that could display the locations of every person and piece of equipment on the jobsite in real time while working in the woods. In addition, they will provide documentation of how off-the-shelf GPS systems, such as Garmin and goTenna, performed on active logging operations so contractors could decide which system would work best with their operations and budget.

Last year the team tested off-the-shelf systems to learn their limitations and capabilities when placed on equipment or worn by a crewperson on active logging operations. Of the systems selected for further testing, Keefe says they are focused on technology that uses radio signals, similar to two-way radios that are already used on jobsites, because the technology seems to be developing a lot faster, and the systems are user friendly and work with cell phones.

Ann Wempe, a graduate student in Keefe’s lab, spent last summer on three cable logging operations in northern Idaho collecting positioning data on the chaser, the choker, the carriage, and on the loader to study the location accuracy of each system.

“GPS can be very varied in how reliable it is [in terms of accuracy of location], and canopy is a major concern,” Wempe explains. The reason for this variability is due to multipath errors, caused by signals hitting trees or leaves before reaching a GPS receiver. On a jobsite, she says, this variability can result in over or underestimating the proximity of a crewperson to a hazard, which can be dangerous. It also means that some radios may work fine for equipment working in a clearcut, but not as well for the feller buncher cutting in the woods.

Currently she is analyzing the data to determine how accurate the systems were under canopy conditions, methods for improving accuracy, such as way stations, and whether Geo-fences, an invisible boundary that could be placed around unit boundaries or riparian areas for example, can be used on the jobsite to warn operators when they are getting close to these lines.

Real-time GPS/GNSS

Another project deliverable is using real-time GPS/GNSS to create activity profiles of each piece of equipment, and this is the focus of Ryer Becker’s research. Becker is also a graduate student in Keefe’s lab. By collecting a machine’s positioning data throughout the work day, such as where the machine traveled or how many times it swung its arm, Becker says he can create a daily activity profile that details the approximate production of board feet brought to the landing—as it happens—and even the cost of operating the machine or system versus what was produced.

Last summer on one logging operation with Jessie Hunt Logging, based out of Kamiah, Idaho, Becker recorded the number of trees felled by the operator and the number of times the arm swung. At the end of the day, he was able to show the operator how he moved through the stand on the screen. “It was interesting for the operator because it was something that he otherwise wouldn’t be too aware of,” Becker says.

Keefe and his team aren’t alone in recognizing the value of real-time GPS/GNSS on logging operations. Scott Kuehn, a forester with Missoula-based Salmon River Wood, approached Keefe with a logging operation problem that he knew real-time GPS/GNSS could solve.

Kuehn’s company works on U.S. Forest Service sales that require the mapping out of skid trails prior to beginning the operation. This stipulation is because of a lawsuit that requires the Forest Service to demonstrate they are minimizing soil disturbance. “We spend days and days running ribbons on the hillside so the Forest Service can approve our skid trails,” Kuehn says, adding, “It kills us timewise.” It also poses a safety risk for the crew in areas of heavy blowdown or where there is a potential for falling snags.

Kuehn investigated the GPS systems available on the marketplace and found nothing that would meet his needs. He learned of Keefe’s research through their connection with the Intermountain Logging Conference and reached out to Keefe who saw the merit of solving the issue with real-time GPS/GNSS. This summer, Wempe and Becker will work with Kuehn to determine if they can improve the signal’s accuracy under closed canopy conditions.

Kuehn says that although the Forest Service is open to considering other mapping methods to meet the skid trail requirements, “whatever system we go to has to be good because it will be tested for the first time on the job.”

Kuehn’s mapping application isn’t the only additional use that Keefe’s team is finding for real-time GPS/GNSS as they are analyzing the data. “There’s a lot things we take for granted [as far as logging operations] because they’ve been done for a certain way for a long time,” Keefe explains, “but just the way a processor operator, a skidder operator, or a shovel operator interact, if they can visualize what’s going on a bit better, it may help them make other decisions as they’re working.” He uses the example of the processor being able to adjust the timing of cleaning up the landing if the operator knows when the skidder will actually arrive rather than estimating.

Toolkit in 2017

This fall, Keefe anticipates rolling out a toolkit that will detail which systems work best under certain circumstances, their cost, and how contractors can implement the technology on the jobsite. This toolkit will include a phone-based app that Eloise Zimbelman, also a graduate student in Keefe’s lab, is developing. She says her goal is to create an app that could download a map onto a smartphone or tablet, and if everyone has an inexpensive transmitting device available from goTenna technologies, it would be possible to see everything on the map moving in real time, tailored to forest operations.

Part of designing this app requires “deciding how simple versus how complex we want the app to be; as simple as having a map and showing the points or more advanced being able to show a Geo-fence around the harvest unit,” Zimbelman explains. “We really want it to be as user friendly as possible so more people are likely to use it.” Keefe emphasizes that making their resources user friendly is a priority. “That’s something we hear from loggers again and again. User friendly is really important.”

Keefe and the team are excited about the future of telematics technology and logging. “The possibilities are endless as to how we can use [this technology] to improve efficiency and safety and just general awareness on operations,” he says. Contractors will be instrumental in the future development because they provide suggestions, says Keefe, “From having a dot that shows where seed trees were laid down in an overstory removal, to the skidder operator seeing a heat map of which trees were cut first by the feller buncher.”

Off the Grid 2017

Contractors who are interested in learning more about the use of real-time GPS on the jobsite and trying the technology out for themselves are invited to attend Off the Grid 2017: Real-Time Positioning for Natural Resources being sponsored by the UI College of Natural Resources. The conference is scheduled for November 2 - 3, 2017, and registration details are available at

TimberWest November/December 2013
July/August 2017

On the Cover
Rob Keefe attaching a GNSS locator on a carriage with David Henderson Logging at a cedar pole sale near Headquarters, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Ann Wempe.

Southern Oregon Operator of the Year
Plikat Logging’s exceptional work on a demanding job got the attention of the Oregon Department of Forestry

The Next Big Thing in Plywood
Oregon’s Freres Lumber is taking its operations a step further, building a specialized manufacturing facility to produce the company’s newest innovation, Mass Plywood Panels

Firebreak Column
The drone dummies are back

Taking It to the Extreme
The company takes on the dangerous jobs that nobody wants to tackle

Telematics Technology
Technology promises to be a game changer for forest operations

2017/2018 Buyer’s Guide & Directory of Western Forest Products and Suppliers
Full list of products, manufacturers, distributors and services

Guest Column
Biopesticide-based pest control strategies


In the News

Machinery Row

Association News

For all the latest industry news, subscribe to our twice monthly newsletter!


* indicates required