Tree Tech: Enlisting Electronics in Environmental Protection
As organizations and governments around the world seek solutions to climate change and deforestation, engineers are playing their part in the quest for ecological balance.
The technology industry has not always had a harmonious relationship with the environment. Some would probably call that an understatement, and we certainly can find examples from the past—and, unfortunately, the present—in which technological development has negatively affected the health of human societies and ecological systems. The electronics industry has not been exempt from that trend, and ongoing concerns include managing e-waste, mitigating the effect of harmful materials in solar panels, and making semiconductor manufacturing less toxic and more sustainable.
The dendrometers pictured measure seasonal tree growth patterns, swelling after rainfall and subsequent drying, and daily cycles of water uptake. Image courtesy of the Canadian Journal of Forest Research
Fortunately, engineers tend to enjoy finding solutions, and though the tech industry has caused its share of environmental problems, new electronic systems provide opportunities to solve environmental problems as well. In this article, we’ll take a look at three high-tech methods for protecting organisms that are widely considered crucial to the overall health and vitality of our planet—namely, trees.
The era of the Internet of Things has introduced numerous discrete sensors into our homes, offices, and industrial facilities, gathering and processing data to make a system more efficient. Applying this concept to woodland management results in a practice known as climate-smart forestry (CSF), defined by Torresan et al. as “an emerging branch of sustainable adaptive forest management aimed at enhancing the potential of forests to adapt to and mitigate climate change.” Through real-time monitoring of data transmitted by a network of diverse, distributed sensors, CSF seeks to more efficiently and effectively promote healthy, productive, biodiverse forests.
The wireless sensor network in a CSF system incorporates various sensing techniques that work together to regularly supply information to environmental scientists and forest managers. CSF sensors include rain gauges, thermistors, and specialized devices or systems for measuring soil moisture, soil gas emissions, foliage quality, leaf temperature, sap flow, and growth rate.
As the diagram suggests, CSF involves a variety of advanced technologies working in concert. Image courtesy of the Canadian Journal of Forest Research
Though theoretically promising, CSF requires advanced technology, complex data management, and extensive deployment of electronic devices into areas and conditions that are not always conducive to reliable operation. My engineer’s intuition tells me that glitches, failures, and performance inadequacies will be frequent enough to seriously imperil CSF’s feasibility—especially if decisions are being made at the corporate level, where financial sustainability must often take precedence over ecological sustainability. Nonetheless, forest-monitoring technology has come a long way, and at least some CSF specialists are more optimistic: “The possibility of data-rich climate-smart forestry appears to be on the verge of realization.”
Listening for Threats
A partnership between Infineon and Rainforest Connection has produced forest-protection technology that strikes me as truly innovative. With all the media coverage of climate change and other rather complex or abstract environmental issues, it can be easy to forget that trees often face dangers of a much more direct and straightforward nature—such as human beings with chainsaws.
Fortunately for those trying to protect forests from illegal logging, chainsaws are not exactly covert instruments. On the contrary, they’re extraordinarily noisy, and engineers are taking advantage of their characteristic din. Infineon’s Guardian system combines solar-powered sound sensors with artificial intelligence to detect and locate illicit chainsaw use so that rangers can intervene. Guardian-based conservation projects are active in 25 countries, which is impressive, but it would be interesting to chat with forest rangers about the practical operation of the system and how successfully it has enabled them to safely and promptly intercept trespassing loggers.
Though I don’t think anyone will mistake Guardian’s solar panels for a large tropical flower, I appreciate the attempt to visually integrate this technology into the rainforest landscape. Image courtesy of Infineon
The cost of this equipment might be difficult to justify in areas that are not currently targets for illegal timber harvesting, or that would become unlikely targets after loggers realize that the odds are against them, but Infineon has preempted that concern: the same hardware can capture audio recordings of various sylvan fauna and thereby help scientists to monitor biodiversity and the populations of endangered species.
Wearables for Trees?
The German startup Treesense is leveraging its team’s expertise in forestry science, data science, and electrical engineering to develop products they describe as wearables for trees. Unlike the systems discussed thus far, which are designed for large-scale forest management or protection, Treesense endeavors to extend electronic tree monitoring into cities, nurseries, orchards, and maybe even your backyard.
Treesense designed a wireless sensor product called Pulse and an accompanying cloud-based application for managing and visualizing sensor data. Pulse is mounted on the outer surface of a tree trunk, where it monitors water content in the tree’s xylem to facilitate optimized irrigation and provide some insight into the state of the tree’s health.
This diagram shows why the Treesense Pulse device, which can be installed and used by ordinary folks and arboreal specialists, is described as a wearable for trees. (Borke is German for bark.) Image courtesy of Treesense
Multiple Pulse units can be integrated into large-scale municipal or commercial projects that require coordinated, efficient tree management.
I expect that investment in green tech and tree tech, from both small and large engineering companies, will steadily grow. I do not expect, however, that the electronics industry will quickly abandon all of its environmentally questionable practices and materials—in my estimation, it cannot abandon them now or anytime very soon, given the lack of viable alternatives.
At this point, then, perhaps our best option is to pursue a greater balance between ecological harm and ecological protection, and many scientists and engineers are already doing exactly that.