The Inagural Forest+ Survey

...and Modernizing the Annual Harvest Plan.

Performing a survey in the dense jungle isn't easy: Hacking through brush with machetes, avoiding needle-like hooks and barbs which grab for your clothing and skin, the occasional heavy downpour to test your spirit... and your equipment. Every other step you take is over or under a maze of fallen trees, a fierce battle with biting mosquitos and gnarly spider webs, and muddy, uneven ground. The going is slow... and tough. 

Nor is it easy to design and implement a cutting-edge system that will be put to use in such a trying environment. From the comfort of your development lab, it's hard to predict how people will interact with your product, how the harsh conditions and unknown circumstances will test it's true capabilities, what sort of adaptations will take place as users begin to work around limitations, and whether your solution will add value... or prove too foreign and cumbersome for welcome adoption.

Combine the two and you have a real task ahead of you...

And that's exactly what we did at the end of July, as we took our Forest+ Survey application into the Mayan Biosphere Reserve of Petén, Guatemala for field testing with a community-based forest concession called Custosel (short for Custodios de la Selva; roughly translated - "Keepers of the Jungle").  In addition to testing our app, we brought along solar-powered charging stations via the Renogy Firefly portable solar kit and satellite wireless via the Inmarsat IsatHub. We wanted to bring computing power and connectivity into the hands of forest workers in the remote wilderness. 

Our hypotheses was that our technology would be a huge improvement over the clipboard-and-paper traditional survey method which leaves forest engineers with weeks of data entry after returning from their labor-intensive work in the field. This delays the finalization of the annual operating plan - or POA, "Plan Operativo Anual" -  which is necessary to receive government approval for the harvest license. What's more, the method is prone to error and presents gaps in accuracy, and if any trees or protected monuments are noted incorrectly, workers must return to the forest for adjustments to the survey. All of this comes at a huge expense to the concession.

Additionally, the survey is a key driver in decision-making for the rest of the year. So, the sooner it can be completed, the sooner the concession can finalize the budget, allocate resources and equipment, and actually begin putting people to work. 

Earth Observations witnessed an opportunity to streamline operations and inject supercomputer efficiency into the POA workflow. We hoped not only to make make their lives easier, but also to provide real-time insights that benefit the business, and even the entire supply chain. 

After an initial demonstration at the Custosel headquarters in Melchor, we discussed the GPS boundaries for this year's survey so that the geo-fence could be properly set, and we gave people some time for testing the app and giving feedback. Once you get to the jungle there is limited time for testing. Rising daily at 5:00 am and working until just before sundown, the goal is to complete the survey as soon as possible.

On the morning of the first day, we had a group meeting to discuss how the teams would operate. Their team of "tigres" was told to proceed normally, and our team of engineers - including yours truly - would shadow them while trying to keep up. One of the foresters mentioned that while they were a team of tigers, there was at least one "kitten" in their midst. My work - that of proving our platform, and maintaining my dignity - was cut out for me. 

"Los tigres" move like an orchestrated team of seasoned professionals. Calling out codes to one another in Spanish as they find trees that have commercial potential, or denoting the GPS coordinates of protected "moniticulos" - artificial earthen mounds that are remnants of the ancient Mayan Civilization - or joking in slang when they can't hear one another through the thick and abounding flora. It's a lively operation that moves at it's own organic pace; one which is surprisingly fast and befitting of the moniker that they've given themselves. There are guides with machetes, scouts taking positions and coordinates, and engineers noting the species, diameter, and height quickly while pushing forward across many hectares throughout each grueling day. 

The forest is cut into large parcels and concessions are then granted to individual communities. The communities further divide the land into five-year and one-year operating plans. The goal is to cycle the land sustainably so that areas are then locked from further harvest. As the survey was being performed, we witnessed that certain trees are marked for "futura cosecha" and would not be touched again for another twenty-five or even thirty years. 

The tigers know all of these things instinctively. And we had to see if what we've learned over the past 6 months could catch up to and augment their experience. For this, we would depend on observing closely how they go about their trade, which details are important to them and which are not, what is possible to change and what is not - as they are working against mother nature and father time.

As twilight enveloped the camp, we sat at a communal table, reviewing our progress for the day, providing feedback for one another, and discussing future improvements. We used the satellite wireless hub to send the day's reports back to the home office so that our GIS specialists could begin plotting the trees. The consensus from the forest engineers was that this new approach would be a huge boon to their operations. 

After sharing a simple meal of beans, chicken, and tortillas, we would also share our battle wounds for the day. My legs were covered in bug bites to the point that it looked liked red stripes had been painted on. And I wasn't the only one. The following morning, the leader of the team told me that these marks were a rite of passage... And that now I was A TIGER!

To be accepted into and provide value for a team such as theirs is a humbling feeling and has created a bond between us that will last a lifetime. We are honored to work with and learn from Custosel - an organization that takes pride in keeping the forest healthy and productive, while empowering one another and uplifting the local community.

At Earth Observation, we are excited to employ our technology in the fight against illegal and destructive deforestation... one tree at a time! Please check back soon for our progress.