Technology for Arborists

By Brandon Gallagher Watson

An arborist technician pulls up in front of a client’s house. She turns off her GPS that got her there and pulls out her iPad. She quickly checks her e-mail for the work order, and gets the specs on the treatment she is going to perform today. Hopping out of her truck, she grabs a drill, her tree injection equipment, her PPE, and the bottle of product she is going to use. Getting to the tree, she sets up the system, and starts the injection. While she waits, she checks Facebook on her phone and quickly goes to Google News for today’s headlines. The treatment moves into the tree quickly and safely, she rounds up her gear, cleans up the site and gets back in her truck. Using her iPad, she completes the customer invoice and gets it e-mailed to the client. She checks her e-mail again for the next work order, punches the address into her GPS, and is off to the next site.

There are so many ways we use technology everyday in this business it almost becomes an invisible part of the job. Checking in at the office, getting to the job site, and Googling “What’s wrong with this tree?” are all made so much easier with technology available at our fingertips. Arboriculture is a sophisticated bioscience industry that requires up-to-date information; and the best in the business are constantly utilizing the smartest tools and embracing the newest ideas. Technology is defined as “the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a pre-existing solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation, or perform a specific function.” That pretty much describes everything we use on a daily basis in this business. So, what are some of the ways technology touches tree care and is making the lives of arborists easier?

Vehicle Technology

If I were to ask what was the first piece of technology used in the opening example, many people would say the GPS unit. In fact, the vehicle she pulled up in is one of the most technologically advanced machines she will touch all day, but our vehicles are so ubiquitous we often forget how important they are — until they stop working, of course. Vehicles, such as passenger cars and light trucks, are the cornerstones of any tree care business. The old joke goes, “What makes a tree company? Two guys, a chain saw, and a truck.” That is fairly accurate in some regards as getting to the job site really is job number one. Heavy machinery, such as a chipper or a lift, and other specialized vehicles, such as a bucket truck or a box truck, can be technological game changers that can transform the scope of you business. Our tree care service was interested in bidding on municipal tree care contracts but could never get our bid price low enough to compete. Adding a clam truck to our fleet was the technological advancement that allowed us to get removals done quickly and efficiently, opening up new revenue potentials. Even adding a small grapple loader to a crew doing removals in a backyard can greatly improve efficiency, not to mention morale. Though we often overlook our vehicles as technology, they are maybe the most import tech we will use all day.

Digital technology

Another technology whose importance cannot be overstated is, of course, computers. It is impossible to be in business today without utilizing some form of digital tech. Communicating with coworkers, customer databases, invoicing, finance, marketing — all of these rely heavily on technology. We also use computers as our access point to the wealth of information available to us online. I can’t think of a week in the last 10 years I didn’t look something up related to trees, their care, or our industry. Social media has created a global network where you can find out anything from new climbing techniques to the blog of a researcher searching for emerald ash borer habitat in northern China. The information shared between arborists and researchers from around the world has undoubtedly raised the knowledge level of our profession, and is the most powerful way we stay abreast of the most current advancements.

Mobile technology

Taking all the information available on the web and putting it into a device that fits into your pocket has been one of the great leaps forward in recent memory. Considering how universal smartphones and tablet computers seem today, it wasn’t that long ago when all your cell phone could do was make phone calls. Today, arborists are using their phones for just about every part of their business. We are using phones and tablets for collecting geographic information system data for inventories that used to required specialized, often expensive and cumbersome, equipment. We also use our phones for diagnosing health issues, writing up bid estimates for the client, and checking the rates for a treatment application. Mobile devices are chocked full of possibilities with millions of apps available that can help with a specialized task such as tree identification or learning to tie a new knot.

Chemical technology

Modern tree health care is built around the diagnosis of issues and the prescription of their treatments. To many, the idea of using any type of chemical treatment for tree health rings of the “spray and pray” era when chemicals were utilized in an irresponsible manner. The past decade has seen significant advances in the treatments used with new products for some of the most challenging pest issues arborists face. Up until 15 years ago, the treatments available for tree health care were products developed for other industries such as agriculture and golf. Rates for tree care were often added to the label with no scientific backing. Today, advances in chemical technologies are formulations developed specifically for arboriculture, focusing on the pest they are targeting, the method by which they will be applied, and the safety of the person making the application. For example, not more than five years ago, scale insects and caterpillar pests were only acceptably controlled by spray applications, but the operational and public relation challenges of spray treatments saw more and more arborists moving away from them all together. New research led to systemic treatments becoming available, allowing a technician to apply a treatment to the base of the tree and control damaging insects a hundred feet up in the canopy. These technological advancements improved the tree’s health, made the tree care company’s job easier and more profitable, and offered the tree’s owner the same beautiful, healthy tree they desired.

The past five years have also seen an increased demand for tree injection applications, and new chemistries are being developed specifically for this purpose. Tree health problems, from oak wilt and Dutch elm disease to invasive pests such as Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer, have put tree injection at the forefront of the tree health care business. Market demands are also forcing an increased understanding in the science of tree injection to improve the uptake time of treatments, improve the distribution within the tree, and increase the longevity of treatments. New formulations are intentionally designed to move quickly into trees and minimize hazards to the applicator. Tree injection is an exciting frontier of arboriculture right now, with improvements in safety and operations that are opening up new possibilities for tree health care companies.

Application technology

The technological advancement of chemical formulations has been evolving hand-in-hand with the equipment used to apply them. It wasn’t that long ago when all tree health care application devices looked like they were cobbled together from hardware store surplus. More application devices are available today for tree care than ever before, and are being designed better all the time. The first generation of tree injection equipment was focused on getting the treatments into the tree and that’s about it. Devices today are being designed with the ergonomics, ease of use, and safety of the applicator from start to finish, including how easily they are cleaned back at the shop.

Tree injection is not the only application method that has benefited from technological advances. Soil injection probes used to only rely on digital flow meters, which have their advantages for efficacy but have their drawbacks in accuracy. Newer devices function similar to a hypodermic needle where a precise dose can be administered every time. Spray application equipment was formally attached to heavy trucks that could be used for only the purpose of spraying. New versions are mounted on removable bracket systems that allow you to use a pick up as a spray rig when needed, or remove it and have another truck available when it is not. Modifiable systems like this are a popular trend with tree service companies for good reason, they are less expensive and more flexible, which, in the end, makes them more profitable as well.

As you can see, technology for tree care comes in many forms. Technology is not just computers and phones, but the tools we use every day get to the trees and perform our work. The most important advancement in tree care is not a single device, tool, or application we use, but our knowledge of how and when to use it. Although there are undoubtedly more tools and knowledge available to arborists now than at any point in history, arboriculture is still an evolving science. New, of course, does not always mean better, so it is on us as an industry to constantly demand that new advances are backed by solid research before we adopt them. Better science equals better technology equals better tree care.

Brandon Gallagher Watson is creative director at Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, and is an ISA Certified Arborist (#MN-4086A).

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