Utility Vegetation Management and Technology Should be a PartnershipInnovation
By Randall H. Miller, Director of Research & Development
We are in a golden age of technological advancement in utility arboriculture. Utility arborists are rightfully interested in applying technology to optimize efficiency and quality control. This issue of Utility Arborist Newsline is one of many devoted to technology. Technology is also a common topic at utility vegetation management (UVM) conferences, including Trees and Utilities, Environmental Concerns in Right-of-Way Management Symposia and CEATI. In March 2019, the Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit in Sacramento was dedicated entirely to applying technology to prevent tree-powerline caused fires in California. The list goes on and on.
Technological applications applied to UVM include high resolution LiDAR; satellite imagery; PhoDAR; drones, GIS-based program management software; application of mobile devices to enhance communication between management, supervision and the workforce; and weather modeling. These enhancements among others are becoming indispensable for program managers.
Even so, I am concerned that many of these technological advances are being advocated as ends unto themselves. Engineered solutions to vegetation management issues are too often promoted as a replacement for utility arborists. An illustrative example comes to mind from the 2019 Arboriculture Australia conference I attended. One of the presenters was an economist who offered results of a global utility vegetation management benchmark survey she conducted. She declared the best in class program was in Spain, where just two managers ran an entire program using computers – without ever leaving their offices. No boots on the ground needed other than tree crews – all due to the magic of technology. I have no doubt she is a brilliant economist, but her vegetation management advice is folly. I left wondering how many economic conferences would invite arborists to lecture on economic best practices. I doubt any, and for good reason – our economic expertise is no more worthwhile than an economist’s arboricultural recommendations. The same is true of other technocrats.
I have a similar impression from other venues. Often technology presentations are offered by information technology salespeople, who oversell their systems. For example, I have heard LiDAR promoted as capable of identifying tree species. I have yet to see it. When I asked one presenter how LiDAR could achieve species granularity, their answer was that it required repeated feedback from ground verification, and with enough examples, artificial intelligence will enable computers to zero in on a species level. I can buy that. There are applications people can use with their smart phone’s camera to identify plant species. If other platforms can identify tree species, LiDAR probably can too. But, there’s a lot of work to be done before we get there. For instance, when the urban forest at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point was recently LiDARed, the cupola of the Old Main Building was identified as a tree. No word on which species. My point isn’t that LiDAR is ineffective – far from it. Rather, it is a tool to use to target areas for closer scrutiny. To be most effective, it needs to be used in partnership with qualified arborists in the field, rather than as a contrivance monitored exclusively from an office.
My point isn’t that LiDAR is ineffective – far from it. Rather, it is a tool to use to target areas for closer scrutiny. To be most effective, it needs to be used in partnership with qualified arborists in the field, rather than as a contrivance monitored exclusively from an office.
This idea was driven home at the Wildfire Technology Innovation Summit by California Public Utilities Commission Safety and Enforcement Division Deputy Executive Director Elizaveta Malashenko, who admonished a panel that they should be promoting their advances to augment, rather than replace, traditional vegetation management. She’s right. The idea of engineered solutions solely coming to the rescue of hapless arborists seems to be yet another instance of a lack of appreciation for the professional expertise required to manage the complexities of UVM. We must do a better job conveying our value than we do now.
We bring a lot of this disrespect on ourselves. We identify as “tree trimmers” and refer to our programs as tree trimming, even though we know that utility arboriculture is far more than that. Such demeaning terminology contributes to the widespread misconception that there is a lack of competency among utility arborists.
There are developers who agree with me. Joe Purohit of Ecolayers, LLC stresses their Tree Asset Manager is designed to work with existing systems. Another example is Bayer. At a conference in Saskatoon, SK last March, Darrell Chambers shared high resolution satellite remote imagery under development by Bayer, for which they plan to offer subscriptions to take frequent data on targeted areas (like power lines), now at three meters, but eventually down to five centimeter, resolution. The data can be used to help practitioners target their resources. For example, imagery that shows a tree gradually leaning closer to power lines might indicate it is failing for one reason or another, and ought to be scheduled for a field inspection. Chambers emphasized that the idea isn’t to replace arborists, but to enable practitioners to use their resources more efficiently.
That should be the paradigm – partnership. Technology should improve UVM programs by helping us to use our limited resources more efficiently. In the March/April 2020 Utility Arborist Newsline, Will Nutter pointed out the difficulty the profession is having recruiting and retaining workers. Adequate program funding is also hard to come by. Yet we know that a premise of integrated vegetation management best practice is to base prescriptions on data and facts. Technology can help us identify where to look and improve our accuracy. Technology can also help us streamline our data analysis, work assignment and tracking, as well as document workload and justify the business case for UVM budgets. We don’t have enough people to scrutinize and manage the multitude of trees under our management. Technology is an effective way to bridge the gap in our deficiency of human and monetary resources.
There is no replacement for competent field professionals. Remote sensing can’t determine a proper collar cut, codominant stem, shear plane crack, overextended branches or determine the existence of internal decay, asymmetrical hollow, pronounced bulges on trunks or other tree defects that might be identified through a Level 1 or 2 assessment. Moreover, technology can’t provide the one-on-one communication many property owners, land managers and other stakeholders need for a successful UVM program. Qualified, trained arborists provide these and many other programmatic benefits that technology alone cannot. Practitioners on the ground are necessary to augment remote sensing, ensure quality control and deliver optimal programs.
What’s more, technology doesn’t need to be oversold as a singular solution for it to be welcomed into utility arboriculture. We need it. But we shouldn’t apologize for our expertise and what we offer. Our understanding of how to manage dynamic natural systems is essential to solve the difficult problems attendant to ensuring safe, flawlessly reliable energy while promoting environmental stewardship. Those skills are outside the expertise of technocrats. Technology will continue to transform utility vegetation management. It will be a positive force only if applied as an enhancement to skilled, knowledgeable arboricultural professionals who use it to optimize limited resources.
It’s all about partnership.
- Dunster, J.A., E.T. Smiley, N. Matheny and S. Lilly. 2017. Tree Risk Assessment Manual (2nd Ed.) Champaign, Illinois: International Society of Arboriculture.
- Miller, R.H. 2009. We’re Not Tree Trimmers. T&D World. June 2009. pg. 4.
- Miller, R.H. 2014. Best Management Practices: Integrated Vegetation Management. (2nd Ed.). Champaign, Illinois: International Society of Arboriculture.
- Miller, R.H. and G. Kempter. 2018. Utility Arboriculture: The Utilty Specialist Certification Study Guide. Champaign Illinois: International Society of Arboriculture.
- Purohit, J. 2019. The Case for Data Integration. Utility Arborist Newsline. Vol 10(2):12,14.
- Nutter, W. 2020. Keeping Up With the Market and Addressing the Crisis of Worker Retention and Turnover. Utility Arborist Newsline. 11(2):24-25.