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RFID Helps Foresters Grow Koa Trees

Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods uses EPC Gen 2 tags to identify each tree it raises and then harvests for its investors.
By Claire Swedberg
May 12, 2010On a Hawaiian mountainside, RFID tags are being planted alongside saplings of an indigenous tree, to track their care and eventual harvesting. The RFID system, being used by Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods (HLH), also enables the grower to track each sapling's lineage, by storing data not just about that tree (linked to a tag's unique ID number), but also the mother tree (the source of the tree's specific seed). In that way, the company can better manage forest diversity, and thus ensure a healthier crop of trees.

The company was launched in 2004 with the purchase of a 2,700-acre piece of property on Mauna Kea, an inactive volcano in Hawaii. The property had been cleared for cattle grazing decades prior, and HLH's plan was to raise koa trees—a rare species native to that state—for investors who purchase rights to trees on lots on the plantation. The koa's fine-grained red wood is sought after for the manufacture of cabinets, furniture and other high-value products.


At HLH's nursery, an RIFD tag is used to track each koa sapling.

There were several reasons why Hawaiian Legacy Hardwoods chose to attach RFID tags to each tree, says Darrell Fox, the company's chief operating officer. HLH needed a way to track every tree's location, lineage and care, as well as share that information with the tree's owner. Plastic tags printed with bar-coded or text ID numbers would be insufficient, he explains, because they would be unlikely to survive the 25 years that a tree continues to grow before being harvested. In addition, ID tags are inserted into the ground, where they remain while the tree is still a sapling. During those years, leaves and debris can cover that tag, making it difficult to find and read a tag lacking an RFID chip. Consequently, Fox believed the use of RFID would make record keeping related to the trees more accurate and efficient

Therefore, the company began seeking an RFID solution, and ultimately selected Confidex's Pino passive ultrahigh-frequency (UHF) tag, designed specifically for tracking trees and wooden objects. When a seed is first planted in a biodegradable pot at the company's nursery, it is accompanied by an RFID tag encoded with a unique ID number linked to the date and information about its mother tree. In that way, when the trees are planted, the staff has a record of each sapling's lineage and can thus ensure they do not exclusively plant trees from a single mother tree in one area, which would reduce the forest's diversity and, therefore, the general health of the trees within it. The tags, which comply with the EPC Gen 2 standard, are read using a Convergence Systems CS101 handheld interrogator, and the data is then transmitted from the handheld reader to the company's back-end system via a Wi-Fi connection. That data is saved on HLH's Web-based database, using software the firm developed itself.

For each procedure that follows, such as adding fertilizer, the tag is again read and the procedure is recorded in the software. Approximately 12 weeks later, when the tree is around six inches in height, it is relocated to its assigned lot on Mauna Kea. The tag, which is three inches long and encased in white, weather-resistant PET plastic, is inserted into the ground—but protruding enough out of the soil to be easily read from a distance of about 10 feet.

Each square, quarter-acre lot is defined by its latitude and longitude. To accomplish this, Fox employs a GPS device, reading locations at a lot's four corners, and driving a long PVC pin into the ground at each corner point in order to physically mark it. He then uploads the longitude and latitude data for each corner into GIS software on the back-end system. With a GPS module CS501 (which the company has on order) on the Convergence Systems handheld RFID reader, HLH will also have each tree's GPS location as the tags are read. "I will still probably read the corner locations with the stand-alone device to help error-proof the documentation," he says, "and more easily generate field maps for use by our team."

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