Will the Internet of Trees Be the Next Game Changer?

Can the Internet of Things help foresters better “see” their trees?

Forestry and its related industries are something of a technology laggard, unlike agriculture, where cutting-edge technologies are being aggressively adopted. But the prospect of the industry building an “Internet of Trees” to drive efficiency, improve quality, and improve awareness of soil conditions is emerging.

Eric Hansen and Scott Leavengood, both professors at Oregon State University’s Wood Science and Engineering department, discussed with MIT Sloan Management Review how the Internet of Things is being used in the forest sector and the implications for the industry’s future. Michael Fitzgerald, contributing editor at MIT SMR, conducted the interview.

When we hear about the Internet of Things, we don’t think Internet of Trees. What’s happening in this field?

On the forestry side of things, there are two general areas that are important. One of them is ecological monitoring. That is done in lots of different ways now, often with people out there measuring things. As we learn how to improve the measurement process so that we can collect data continuously, monitoring can be improved and made more precise. If we think about all the forest fires that occur every year, more sophisticated sensoring would allow early detection of the biggest risk areas and the potential for isolating specific locations. That’s being done now at some level with satellites, but the ability to sensor everywhere would be an important and maybe even cost-saving next step.

In New Zealand, log segregation is a big thing with their plantation forestry. Being able to identify wood quality in a standing tree, and to send the right log to the right mill, is a really hot topic right now. And in Europe, there was a multinational project called Flexwood (flexible wood supply chain), that focused on sending the right trees to the right processing facilities.

Sawmills, in general, are set up to do one thing very fast and very well: make structural lumber or make appearance-grade lumber for furniture or cabinets or whatever.