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RFID in the Forest

Tagging trees could help preserve the world's forests while increasing timber yields and profits.
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Feb 01, 2011—Timber used to be harvested by clear-cutting trees in a forest until environmentalists called attention to the potential ecological damage to wildlife and the impact of deforestation on global warming. That ushered in a movement in the 1990s toward more environmentally sound logging, and over the years, some timber companies have committed to planting seedlings in equal or greater numbers to the trees they fell. Now, radio frequency identification has the potential not only to support sustainable forest management but also to provide visibility into the timber supply chain. The technology can be used to identify each tree and track it from forest to sawmill and onto its manufacture into wood products, which can reduce waste of a vital natural resource.

Unlike many industries that have gained efficiencies and cost savings from information technology, the forestry industry has been left largely in the woods. "How can you track a tree with a bar code, unless you tattoo [the code] or burn it into the tree?" says Michael Liard, RFID practice director for ABI Research. That's changed in the past few years, with development of specialized RFID tags that can be embedded into trees, manually or by machine. Some of these tags are made of biodegradable materials, so they can be ground with wood products to make pulp and paper.

RFID tags made of biodegradable materials can be ground with wood products to ake pulp and paper. (Photo courtesy of Indisputable Key)

"The forestry industry hasn't had to think about automatic identification until now that we have tags that can be embedded into trees," Liard says. "RFID can bring value by tracking timber through the whole logging operation, through shipment, monitoring for deliveries and such."

In pilots and deployments worldwide, governments, research institutes, forestry and sawmill companies, and wood products manufacturers are employing RFID to optimize forest production and improve the quality of wood products, as well as to minimize environmental damage and enable companies to comply with U.S. and European rules barring import of illegal or endangered timber products. But before RFID-tagging becomes common practice in the forestry industry, tag prices must come down and more solid business cases must be demonstrated. Meanwhile, RFID shows promise as a tool to help control wildfires.
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