Article written by John Wickes, Vice President of sales at Wickes Arborists, Robolliance Expert
Some would think it an old fashioned profession, but I am an arborist. Arborists are called on to solve problems people have with their trees and, since 1929, my family has been doing this. I’ve grown up around trees, and my family business, Wickes Arborists, has grown up with the arboricultural industry. Though trees and their associated problems are timeless, how we treat them is ever more dynamic and high tech. Our profession, like security, is entering a robotic age.
My grandfather, Ira Wickes, Sr., was an early adopter of technology. He started the business by cutting down trees with a hand saw and took his earnings, secured a couple hundred-dollar loan and bought a Ford Model “A” pickup truck - - - a true modern marvel in its day - - - to improve his efficiency. When the first chain saw was invented, he bought one of those too.
From the 1950s through the 1980s, my father, Ira Wickes, Jr., continued keeping up with new technologies when the first bucket trucks, log trucks, cranes, chippers and tree spraying equipment came onto the scene. He even bought one of the first available computers in the green industry. It was a massive main frame based program, called CADO, to monitor and manage the business. While it seemed for a time the arborist industry remained in the 1980s, with little or no new innovation, we got bigger and better buckets, stronger cranes and chippers, but we still looked at trees with a low tech eye.
Alex Shigo, known as the father of modern arboriculture, changed how we looked at trees in the 60s and 70s. He did this by touching them, in order to better understand them, and the tree world was turned on its head. Shigo spent 18 years in the US Forest Service, looking at, studying and dissecting trees with a chain saw. By doing so, he discovered that trees grow completely differently than ever imagined. The outer bark was mostly the living part of a tree, and the inner part, or heartwood, is mostly non-living. The heartwood provides the structural support that keeps the tree from succumbing to gravity.
Shigo also found, that when trees are wounded, they respond by forming a series of walls, to help isolate, and grow around the wounds. His theory, called the compartmentalization of decay in trees or CODIT, was revolutionary, and is still affecting how trees are looked at and treated. One of his primary tenets was that trees should not be unnecessarily wounded, especially through the heartwood portion. Trees that are wounded through walls that protect the heartwood of the tree are more susceptible to decay, rot, and failure.
Ever since the first tree failed, and hit something or someone, people have been wondering why and how they fail, and what was going on behind the layer of living tissue, or the bark. Until recently, arborists had to cut down and dissect a tree, like Al Shigo, or drill or bore into it, to see how much supporting heartwood or structural wood was holding a tree up. One could bang on the trunk of a tree, with a mallet, and listen for the sound of a hollow or decayed section, much like a woodpecker looking for insects. But such methods were highly subjective, and very crude. The best tools we had were called increment borers and resistance drills, which would penetrate through the bark and heartwood, in order to measure the amount of sound, and decayed wood and hollow portions. We could analyze the core samples, and graphs created by the resistance of the drill. But with the knowledge from CODIT, we knew that such penetration could cause more problems. And they were still fairly low tech.
Like robots are hitting the security scene today, arborist saw the entry of the personal and portable computer, and a device called a sonic tomograph. Conceived in the late 1950’s’s, but not developed until the early 90’s, the tomograph was developed at Washington State University by Professor Roy F. Pellrin. He took the concept of the woodpecker, looking for insects, and created sensors, that could be attached to a tree, by penetrating only the bark and not into the heartwood of a tree. The concept is this. By tapping on the sensors, sound is propagated within the tree.
The speed of sound through solid wood is measurable, and consistent within similar species of wood. Sound traveling in a straight line through solid wood travels faster than sound through decayed wood or hollow sections. The difference in time can be measured in milliseconds. Once the tree species baseline time of flight of the sound in wood is known, differences in the time reveal differences in the structural integrity of the wood. Multiple sensors in the same layer or level on the tree create multiple triangulations, and produce data, which can be analyzed to determine if the difference in time is significant. If the differences are significant, one can correlate, determining acceptable thresholds, which parts of the tree have sound wood, decayed wood, or hollow sections.
A laptop or tablet computer, with the proper software can be brought right up to the tree, and connect with it. It can then analyze the bytes and data to create a visual, one dimensional cross sectional image, or layer of the tree. This image depicts how sound behaves in that layer, creating a visual representation that is easily understood by both professionals and lay persons alike. It allows the user to “see” what the cross section of the tree might look like, as if that slice was removed surgically. By combining multiple layers’ images and data, the software can layer them visually, extrapolate what might be between the layers, and create 3D, rotatable images.
All this is done with minimal invasion into the heartwood of the tree. The sensors penetrate only the bark, which can easily seal off the small wounds the sensors create. By analyzing the images and data, better assessments of structural support and tree risk can be made. With better data, more accuracy can be made in determining which trees are; low, moderate, high or extreme risk. And with such accuracy, trees once thought too risky too be preserved, might be saved instead of just being cut down, because of the unknown of what’s behind the bark.
I first discovered the sonic tomograph in 2010 at the American Society of Consulting Arborists in Tucson, Arizona, and the Society’s annual conference. Peter Divos, son of Ferenc Divos, a student of Dr. Pellin, had the device and was showing it off at the conference. Being the digital child I was, I got hooked.
After a couple of years of annual conferences, I convinced Peter and his father to allow me to be the distributor of their device, which we named the Arborsonic 3D, in the United States. I was an early adopter of this innovative technology that had not even caught my competitors’ attention. Today, I use the device to help save lives, especially when trees are of high value, are historic, or have high sentimental worth, but are structurally unsound, and people do not want the trees removed.
The digital picture is worth thousands of words, especially when people “see” visually, just how bad a tree is. But in other cases, I also use the device to help save trees. Just because a tree has a hollow section, does not mean it has to come down. Think about a flag pole. Why is it hollow and not solid? Flag poles are hollow because they perform better in winds when bent or twisted than a solid pole does. But it takes experience, knowledge, training and technology to best determine and know which tree is sound, and which is not. So in other words, which bark is no worse from the byte.
My challenge to you is this - - - even if your industry and what you do within it fits like a glove, there is always room for better. Safety and security are steadfast tenets of good business. Like a tree, you want to preserve them. What can you do with something like robotics to see beyond your competitors and do your business to its best?