​From the Director's Desk: Technology Reshaping Arboriculture

By Fred Breglia, Executive Director

Tech­nol­o­gy is also enabling smarter machines. As advanced sen­sors can tell us when our cars need main­te­nance, that same tech­nol­o­gy is becom­ing avail­able for pow­er equip­ment includ­ing chain­saws, weed whack­ers, and mow­ers. When these items are linked to mobile phones, arborists can eas­i­ly track run­times on equip­ment, mea­sure fuel con­sump­tion, and sched­ule main­te­nance. There is even a phone app to locate your chain­saw should you for­get where you put it! Robot­ic mow­ers are avail­able with sen­sors and auto­mat­ic deck adjust­ments, allow­ing them to mow a lawn pre­cise­ly. Some of these machines even load them­selves on and off the trail­er at the worksite.

Urban­iza­tion and chang­ing envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions are cre­at­ing new chal­lenges for our trees. In response, com­put­er tech­nolo­gies are being devel­oped that mon­i­tor plant health. Chloro­phyll flu­o­rom­e­ters (which mea­sure the amount of chloro­phyll emit­ted from plant leaves) give an insight into the plant’s health, since lev­els of vari­able flu­o­res­cence often indi­cate the lev­el of plant stress. The Euro­pean Space Agency’s FLu­o­res­ence EXplor­er, FLEX, was designed to mea­sure flu­o­res­cence of plants from space in order to pro­vide an under­stand­ing of the way car­bon moves between plants and the atmos­phere and how pho­to­syn­the­sis affects the car­bon and water cycles. 

Sen­sor-enabled real-time data col­lec­tion in con­cert with com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy can rapid­ly ana­lyze infor­ma­tion. Data col­lect­ed over time is help­ing to build a mod­el of plant health for indi­vid­ual tree species under dif­fer­ent envi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions. This tech­nol­o­gy can also mon­i­tor dif­fer­ent phys­i­o­log­i­cal func­tions: sap flow rates, for exam­ple. Sap flow is the mea­sure of a tree’s water flow, which indi­cates its health and vital­i­ty. By mon­i­tor­ing it, stress and oth­er issues can be detect­ed long before they can be seen. When chart­ed, the sap flow cre­ates a pulse rate, sim­i­lar to the pulse rate of a human. Who knows, there may be Fit­bit for trees in the near future!

Con­trol­ling dam­age caused by insect pests and fun­gal pathogens is imper­a­tive when man­ag­ing our land­scapes and forests. Appli­ca­tions using sen­sors installed on trees have proved invalu­able in detect­ing these attacks. Ben­e­fi­cial in large for­est stands or in urban areas, these sen­sors link to GPS coor­di­nates on mon­i­tor maps. Arborists can then see which trees are in dis­tress and give aid to the spe­cif­ic plants.

Tech­nol­o­gy changes at an increas­ing­ly rapid pace, and some inno­va­tions wide­ly in use today seemed incon­ceiv­able just a few years ago. In arbori­cul­ture as in nature itself, adap­ta­tion means survival.

Spring 2021

Volume 39 , Number 1

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