Technology and Timber

GPS units improving efficiency, expanding possibilities
By Patrick White

You don't often hear about "precision forestry," yet hand-held field computers are being used in the woods every day to efficiently collect data, tabulate forest inventory, formulate management decisions and more.
Photos courtesy of F4 Tech/F4 Devices.

The term "precision agriculture" is commonly used to describe the use of GPS and other high-tech tools in managing today's farms. For some reason you don't often hear about "precision forestry," yet hand-held field computers are being used in the woods every day to efficiently collect data, tabulate forest inventory, formulate management decisions, and complete dozens of other tasks.

Thanks to advances in hardware and software, high-tech forestry is becoming more widespread. "The newer generation of hand-held, ruggedized GPS units is less expensive than in the past; they're much more affordable," says Tom Walthousen, director of integrated solutions at F4 Tech (, which provides hardware and software for the forest industry. He notes that these units are also much more accurate than early-generation models, and they have internal GPS antennas, "So there's no need for the old, clunky external antennas."

Walthousen says that F4's hand-held units, such as the Forge and Flint, are capable of 1 to 3-meter accuracies. "That's under canopy. And in the past, that just wasn't possible without an external antenna and spending thousands of dollars," he states. Foresters can now get the job done much more quickly, in part because it's simply easier to move around in the woods with a simple hand-held unit. Walthousen adds: "You're not worried about a cable connection, and any time you have a cable, it's a weak link because it can get bent or crimped."

Nor do you have to worry about using an external antenna with a Bluetooth connection, which could drop out and lead to data not being collected, a problem that might not be recognized until later on. "With these new systems, you're seeing what you're mapping right on the screen, so it's a lot more user-friendly," Walthousen explains.

He says the improved interface makes it easier for foresters to do more with the technology. "In the past, they would be worried just about the boundary of a forest stand. With the ease of mapping today, there may be a wet spot in the middle that has no timber, or an area that is inaccessible, that they are now more likely to go in and map," says Walthousen. More detailed mapping leads to more accurate estimates. "If you're basing your cruise on 50 acres versus 45 acres, there's a big difference in dollar value," he states. "So you're better able to identify and estimate standing timber volume."

Being able to map in greater detail with more accuracy doesn't just help in terms of determining timber volume for a sale; it also makes other treatments more precise, says Walthousen. If, on that same 50-acre woodlot, you're contracting for services such as chemical applications or prescribed burns, those treatments will likely be based on the entire 50 acres shown on a town or county map. "But if you go out and map that stand and it's really 45 acres, you've just saved yourself 10 percent, so it's very important to accurately represent your acreage," he emphasizes. "There are inherent efficiencies in the newfangled equipment."

Thanks to advances in hardware and software, high-tech forestry is becoming more widespread

New-generation hand-held field computers are also faster, lighter and more durable, which leads to a better user experience out on the job on a daily basis, says Walthousen. They're also infinitely more powerful than earlier generations of hand-held equipment. F4's units, for example, boast 3G connections. That means, for example, you can download satellite map imagery wherever you are. "Then you can zoom in, zoom out, see right where you are," Walthousen explains. "This way you get a true picture of what's out there. You can really know."

With past technology, a forester might have been able to download ESRI data or a USGA topographic map in their office before heading out to the woods, but with this technology, you can literally look at the satellite imagery of the forest stand you're in, which leads to more efficient use of time in the woods. "You might see a 5-acre pond that you didn't know about that the satellite imagery can see. Or there might be a spot where there's no reforestation - a bare spot that maybe is a rock outcropping. When it comes to forest evaluations, if you're assuming all the acres are forested, you're missing a lot of the picture," he says.

Walthousen, a forester himself, says one of the things he finds most beneficial about the new-generation technology is that it makes him more aware of things he needs to check out in the field: "I know that not only do I need to GPS the boundary of a stand, but I know that, for example, I need to go in the back left corner of the parcel to look at something that's showing up on the imagery." The new technology even makes the job more efficient when establishing boundaries, he notes. "You have the boundaries of a polygon when you're out there, and you can add that to your GIS in a different layer."

Walthousen notes that some users will allocate their inventory plots onto a polygon before they head out into the woods. "When they get there, they can navigate to their inventory plots. There's no more compass-and-pacing-type stuff, which we used to do." The result is greater accuracy (compass direction and pacing in rough terrain or thick understory often yield unreliable results) and easier (more efficient) trekking. "That's the beautiful thing with GPS: If you're navigating to a plot, it doesn't matter how you get there. You can walk down a road and walk in from there and it will put you on the same spot," he explains. "And you can collect your tree data and make that plot and tree data a layer in your GIS."

The efficiencies of the GPS-enabled devices are even greater on larger parcels. In the past, foresters wanting to complete a timber cruise on 100 acres wouldn't know what plots were on what part of the acreage and might want to split the stand. "We painted a line down half of it, and then we would have to go back out and cruise the other half. Well, now we know what plots are on what half and we can keep those plots separate. And if a stand already has inventory on it, it doesn't have to be reinvented," Walthousen explains.

New-generation hand-held field computers are faster, lighter and more durable, which leads to a better user experience out on the job on a daily basis.

It's an example of a task that was possible in the past, but cumbersome. Now, thanks to technology, this type of job can be completed much more quickly. The same is true in urban forestry when it comes to mapping special trees or park boundaries, says Walthousen.

The new technology is also allowing foresters to do things that simply weren't possible in the past. For example, hand-held field computers can now collect metadata. "That's data about data," explains Walthousen. "You can determine what time someone turned the unit on in the morning; what time he got to his first plot; how long he spent on each plot; how long it took between plots; how many plots he did that day. You can't make up the data any more." In the past, an employee might have been able to report that they completed 20 plots in a day, but they might have been making up the data for 16 of them from inside the truck, creating all sorts of obvious future problems. Now, employers can track actual work completed and document that for clients.

Walthousen says the technology being developed now will bring cloud computing into the forest thanks to smartphone 3G and Wi-Fi connections. This further speeds up data processing and leads to greater efficiencies. "So once you're in the plot, that plot data can be uploaded right to the office, so whoever is managing the project can not only get your data in real time, he can also monitor all the people who are on the site," he says. "If it's a big job and you have four or five people out there, from the office they can watch in real time as they walk around out there."

Tom Walthousen, director of integrated solutions at F4 Tech, says that F4's hand-held units, such as the Forge and Flint, are capable of 1 to 3-meter accuracies.

This type of technology is currently being used mainly by independent foresters who specialize in contract timber cruises. "It makes it so much easier for them to transfer files," says Walthousen.

He says a key consideration for F4 Tech and other manufacturers has been to offer these types of technologies for the forest industry, but also to ensure that the hardware stands up to the real-world abuse inflicted in the field, from units being dropped into water or run over by a truck. "You can't dream up the stuff that happens out there," says Walthousen. He recommends that buyers check the IP ratings of units they are considering to determine both the bounce rating (distance the unit can be dropped and still perform) and the moisture resistance.

Other manufacturers offering GPS-enabled hand-held field units (both tablets and hand-held models) for the forest industry include Trimble, SDG Systems, Juniper Systems and HHCS Handheld Group.

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. Comment or question? Visit and join in the discussions.