By Brandon M. Gallagher Watson
It wasn’t that long ago that a chain saw was all you needed to be in the tree care business. Okay, you probably needed a truck, too, but, in general, tree care was a pretty low-tech industry. The past decade has seen new developments in the equipment for preforming pruning and removal services, as well as the computerized world that surrounds everything we do these days. The following are five different types of technology that are changing the way arboriculture is practiced today.
Data is king, as they say, and the data of tree care is getting better all the time. Much of that is related to advancements in geographic information systems (GIS). GIS is the general term for data that is tied to digitized spatial information — a map that can tell you many things about the content it contains. Many people collapse GIS with GPS — the Global Positioning System satellite network that can find your exact location in a matter of seconds. In the world of GIS, GPS provides an important data point of knowing where something, such as a tree, is located; when combined with other data points such as species, size class, health condition, etc., GIS becomes an invaluable tool for arborists.
Tree care companies are using GIS data to gain insights on everything from tracking long-term changes in urban forest health to gathering information on their customers’ buying habits. For example, GIS can let us know how many trees are in a certain sales territory, or how many of those trees are susceptible to a certain health issue, or what percent of those tree’s owners are opting for a service on them. This allows us to do sales forecasting, and also gives us information on what services should be marketed to a certain geographic region. If we are interested in sending out a postcard to treat for, say, Japanese beetles, we can use GIS to pull out all the customers we have with lindens or birch trees, and then overlay data such as median income or median property value to determine where our marketing dollars are best spent.
Tree inventories have become commonplace for just about every municipality and large, landscaped campus. Many companies have started marketing tree inventories as a stand-alone service offering, and are able to deploy a small team of trained technicians to complete a survey in a matter of days. There are even savvy municipalities that are including “Provide detailed map of treated trees” as a requirement in their bid specifications for large-scale treatment programs. This is allowing them to get valuable GIS data on their urban forest while rolling the cost of it into their treatment budgets.
2. Mobile technology
Part of the reason GIS has become so common in the industry is the technological barrier to entry is significantly less than it was just a few short years ago. Taking all the information available on the Internet 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 smart phones 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 GIS 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 chock full of possibilities with millions of apps available that can help with a specialized task such us tree ID or learning to tie a new knot. They are also extremely valuable for helping pass the time waiting for a client who is late to the appointment.
3. Tracked lifts
If you aren’t familiar with a tracked lift by name (they also go by mini-lift or spider lift) they are boom lifts that are mounted onto small tractor-like bases. They fold small enough to get through an average backyard gate, but then they have support legs that telescope out, providing a wide, stable base. From there it works just like a bucket truck would, allowing the arborist to access a tree’s canopy up to 72 feet above ground.
I had the chance to see this type of lift in action in late March. The tree was one of the largest American elms our tree care service, Rainbow Treecare, has ever taken down. The tree was massive — a 57-inch DBH tree in a tiny backyard in south Minneapolis with no alley access and a tree that went over several adjacent properties. Our team was able to access portions of the tree overhanging the next-door neighbor’s home by driving the tracked lift up their cobblestone driveway, set up in the backyard, and perform the necessary limb removals without the need for a team of climbers and/or a crane. No other piece of equipment could have allowed this. This technology presented not only safer working conditions for our technical arborists, but the time and labor reduction significantly reduced the final cost to client.
4. Modular truck mounts
Spray application equipment was formerly 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 pickup truck as a spray rig when needed, or remove it and have another truck available when it is not. Modifiable systems such as these are popular with tree service companies for good reason — they are less expensive and more flexible, which, in the end, makes them more profitable as well.
Several different manufactures are producing their versions of this concept; and with tanks ranging from 40 gallons to 500 gallons you can start small and go bigger as your plant health care business grows. The entry cost for modifying a pickup truck into a spray truck is anywhere from $500 to $2,000. Compared to the price of a dedicated spray tank truck — which ranges from about $20,000 for a used vehicle to $60,000 for a new model — the modular truck mounted system is allowing many more companies to expand their operations.
5. Tree health care 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 advancements 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, advancements 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 applying them. 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 advances 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 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 early generations of tree injection equipment were focused on getting the treatments into the tree and that’s about it. Devices today are being designed with a focus on ergonomics, ease of use, and safety of the applicator from start to finish — including how easily they are cleaned back at the shop.
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 tree care professionals now than at any point in history, arboriculture is still an evolving science. What technology will we be talking about the next 10 years? Only time will tell…
Brandon M. Gallagher Watson is creative director at Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements.