Along with the chainsaws, harnesses and protective gear, an increasing number of firms are offering computerised packages for tree management. This software, linked to a variety of handheld and office-based computers, is revolutionising the way that arborists work and has brought about impressive efficiency savings for organisations of all sizes.
Firms such as Arbortrack, Woodplan, Robin Forestry Surveys and EzyTreev offer systems that are linked to the cheaply available global positioning systems (GPS), and which can form the basis for managing tree stock.
Under the old paper-based method, tree officers would go around with a notebook. Their notes would then have to be taken back to the office, the trees plotted accurately on a map, and any details recorded.
By incorporating GPS, the new systems cut out much of this work. The trees can be immediately marked on the system’s electronic map at the push of a button.
Most of the systems will then offer a drop-down menu, which can be used to build up a survey of the individual trees. For each tree, the user can input such details as its species, its size — including height, girth and spread — and its age and condition. Many systems allow photos to be included. The user can make a note of any works that are required, such as removing limbs or sucker growth, or even felling.
The advantages are numerous. Arbortrack managing director Quentin Nicholls points out: “Paper gets wet, gets lost, needs copying. Under the old system everything had to be transcribed on to a computer program. This cuts out most of that work.”
The systems allow for better planning. Woodplan software development and marketing manager Robin Hassall points out that with a computerised system it is easier to make financial and managerial decisions. “You can ask the computer to show every tree that’s within 5m of a footpath in a particular council ward, or to highlight which trees need crown reduction. It will sort this out immediately so you can put out a works order,” she says.
A computerised system can also highlight any groups of trees that are nearing the end of their lives so that a system of replacement can be instituted. And it can draw your attention to trees that are the subject of tree preservation orders.
Most systems will also show the backlog of jobs that need doing. This means that when funds are available, the money can be allocated to the most important tasks.
Computer systems are not only more efficient — and therefore cheaper — than the old paper-based methods, they also give arborists a greater degree of protection if anything goes wrong. But good record keeping is essential. “If anyone gets hurt by a falling tree, you must be able to prove when the tree was last inspected, who inspected it and what was said,” says Nicholls.
As a result of these advantages, an increasing number of local authorities are adopting the new computerised methods. Myerscough College course tutor in arboriculture Dr Mark Johnston is helping to write the government-backed Trees in Towns II report. Provisional findings show that 56 per cent of local authorities now use a computerised data management system for trees.
Myerscough uses an EzyTreev system to teach its students. “Computerised management systems are now part of the curriculum at most colleges,” says Dr Johnston. “Our final-year students are doing a review, comparing the various systems, so they should be familiar with how they work.” He points out that most youngsters are highly computer literate and pick up new systems very quickly.
The different systems available are targeted to particular sections of the market. Pear Technology makes relatively cheap systems designed for smaller arboriculture firms. According to managing director John Cowling, the basic software for surveying trees costs £275, the software needed to link this to maps costs a further £250 and compatible global positioning software costs around £500. He claims: “For around £1,000, we can meet the needs of 90 per cent of the market.”
The system can deal with up to 10,000 trees, although the average Pear Technology customer only has around 2,500 trees. The software cannot generate orders for the work to be done, making it unsuitable for local authorities or the large utility companies, but ideal for small arboricultural firms. “If you are surveying a small estate, you can produce a wonderful map with the name of the client and a printed survey of each tree,” says Cowling. “This makes firms look highly professional. We get a lot of enquiries from arborists involved in running small housing estates and golf courses.”
By contrast, Arbortrack is aimed primarily at large organisations and, in particular, local authorities. The system allows users to survey a large number of trees and carry out a risk assessment to see which of those trees are likely to cause problems to the public or buildings. The mapping system can also identify underground utilities, such as pipes or cables, that might be at risk from a tree.
The system will cost anything from £5,000 for local authorities. However, utility companies such as electricity suppliers, railways or water boards might need a much larger system, which would cost up to £125,000 including hardware.
Arbortech management claims that the system is one of the most practical on the market because it is designed by arborists.
Woodplan, by contrast, claims that it is ideal for handling large quantities of data and linking tree data to other areas of an organisation. For example, its system will not only survey the trees but can also be used to generate works orders, instructing contractors or in-house teams to start work on a particular tree. It can also keep a check on the budget for tree maintenance.
EzyTreev is part of a large software company and, like Woodplan, has designed products to handle sizeable amounts of data for large public bodies.
The various systems can be used with different types of computer hardware — usually with some kind of handheld computer or tablet system — using an electronic stylus. The information on the systems will usually be downloaded on to a PC, either via a wireless system or manually, as soon as the operative returns to the office.
Customers often have their own suppliers — and in most cases can choose which kind of handheld computer they want. Arbortrack recommends the Fujitsu pen tablet, which can be fitted with a hard environment case. It can also be supplied with a wireless system to send information to the office.
In the future, the systems are likely to have even more applications. Many local authorities are involved in giving trees a notional value, which is relevant when it comes to deciding whether to cut them down to reduce insurance costs. Barnet council is looking at adapting its software so that trees will be automatically valued.
The systems will increasingly be used to specify how work on trees should be carried out and what safety measures should be undertaken when doing the work; this information could be obtained at the time of the initial survey. The systems could also be linked to diagnostic systems, detecting such things as rot in a tree trunk.
The findings could be put on the internet so that developers and local residents could understand what trees are present and what condition they are in.
However, users and developers agree that while the tree management systems are a useful tool, they will never replace the skilled arborist. Hassall says: “[Replacing arborists has] never been our objective. It’s just a surveying and management tool that will help experts do their job.”
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