Seeing the Wood for the Trees with Big Data & IoT
With almost five million square kilometers of forest, Canada is one of the most forested nations on the planet, second only to Russia. Almost half the country is covered in trees, providing habitat for wildlife along with myriad other ecological benefits for Canadians and humans world-wide.
We depend upon our forests for our livelihood – from lumber to syrup to all the fruits and nuts we harvest.
Like many residents of the Pacific Northwest, my five-acre home is nestled in the forest and is considered a “small wood lot” from a farming perspective. The property provides plenty of logs for the wood stove and a considerable amount of blackberries for the table. Trees grow, trees fall.
Throughout the country, trees are a crop – managed over the span of many years to provide the best results, whether recreational, structural or nutritional. The economy is driven by the production of food and lumber. The wise forest-manager understands when it is time to take action, and when it is time to abide.
I watch my small forest closely – after a storm for windfall and the development of “widow-makers” (trees leaning more than is safe with their root structure). Fallen trees and widow-makers are flagged for harvest.
The forest is a complex ecosystem – it is managed tree-by-tree. It interacts with itself.
Huawei is developing and applying a variety of technologies which improve the management of forests – and all other “crops”, common or exotic. In a field generally called “Smart Agriculture” technology is being used to take tree management to the next level.
Smart Agriculture is mainly about applying conventional farming and tree management wisdom at an enhanced scale. For this reason the words you hear to describe the work in this area include “Precision Agriculture” and “Smart Irrigation”.
Many of the 1,200 patent applications filed by Huawei Canada’s Research Centre in Ottawa deal with the three simple steps of forest management: Watch, Consider, and Act.
Watch – Watchers in the Woods
Cipher Xi of Huawei describes several emerging technologies in “Feeding the World with Connected Farming”. Forest management is quite different from growing classic crops. Think bigger. Think longer. Think more complicated.
When the “crop” extends over millions of square kilometers, devices such as drones are invaluable for collecting data. A drone’s cameras and other sensors not only garner information, but they may be directed to specific data-gathering tasks when required.
Emerging communication technologies such as 5G provide low-cost “base stations” which may be widely distributed along rural roadways to enable gathering of data from “Internet of Things” sensors planted in forested areas. 5G is a key set of technologies for widening the communications web and providing the heightened capability to gather the massive amount of data available from the widely available array of sensors which can monitor all aspects of forest health and climatic conditions.
Consider – The Forest for the Trees
These new technologies provide a flood of data – but how can we consider this massive treasure-trove to identify problems and opportunities?
Huawei’s Research and Development team is called “2012 Labs”. This name was inspired by the film “2012” in which massive flooding heralded the end of the world. Huawei’s “2012 Labs” is tasked with dealing with and controlling the massive flood of information coming with the advance of technology.
Techniques with various names – Machine Learning, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence – are designed to distill insight from information. These techniques combine to generate wise advice on when to act and when to abide – and what actions should be taken. In my own small forest, such techniques could tell a leaning tree from a “widow-maker” based upon photos taken over time, perhaps combined with low-cost IoT devices such as soil sensors.
Act – Measure Twice, Cut Once
Another area of Huawei’s research is called “Variable Rate Technology” (VRT). VRT involves taking wise action (such as providing water) at variable rates based upon information collected. Such technology enables “Smart Irrigation” as well as other types of variable rate application including seeding, brush control, and fertilizing. Simple versions of VRT have been around for a very long time – including home systems which turn the sprinklers on and off based upon the moisture content of the soil.
As with many things, technology just takes such approaches to the next level. IoT connects not only sensors, but devices. Devices DO things. Through Huawei’s emerging technologies, sensor information may be collected and considered in “the cloud” in order to transmit appropriate directions to devices. “Devices” may be too simple a term, since many “devices” are managed by people. For example, the sensors monitoring my small wood lot could indicate that it is time to fell a particular tree. Based on that indication, I would call a lumberjack to fell the tree and harvest the wood.
In the future, directions to devices will be more precise, and more automatic. For example, drones might apply herbicides precisely to maintain firebreaks in just the locations and quantities needed.
The woods are dark, deep…and protected
Not too long ago I would not have considered the forest as a home for technology. But the nice thing about technology is that as it evolves, it enables new ideas, new things. It lets you consider – and solve – problems that were never solved before.