Councils in parts of the country which have significant pine plantations on steep, erosion-prone land have been given a tool to enhance their ability to collaborate with forestry owners and improve communication with industry.

The tool is RemoteHQ, developed by ‘top of the South’-based GeoInsight, and is a map-first software-as-a-service designed to let local government and forestry owners look at successful forest management, potential debris and remedial works on newly-created maps so clear that each individual log can be seen.

It’s a positive, proactive and preventative approach designed to minimise unwanted consequences when bad weather hits neglected forest blocks and someone has to clean up.

One of these worst-case scenarios occurred in 2018 when 47,000 cubic metres of forestry scrap timber weighing an estimated one million tonnes was washed downhill from logging operations in the mountains overlooking Tolaga Bay, choking rivers, exacerbating floods, threatening lives and destroying homes and – because mitigation wasn’t successfully completed – more storms in July 2020 repeated the damage.

These worst-case scenarios can be averted when forestry owners accept councils’ environmental guidance to manage forest blocks effectively, and when they employ cutting edge tools such as RemoteHQ.

RemoteHQ is the forestry-focused application from GeoInsight, run by directors and co-founders Mark Spencer and Rob Besaans. The market opportunity for RemoteHQ is that forestry block owners must by law make best efforts to reduce erosion, control sediment, reduce the risk of slash being washed down, and try to ensure they are controlling stormwater flows. As Spencer puts it, “There are three fundamental components in forestry blocks that need to be managed, and they are water, water and water.”

The company says an ideal use case would work like this: Regional Council environmental staff inspect a forestry block using the RemoteHQ App and modern tech such as drones and 360° cameras to help spot tension cracking, ineffective/missing drainage on roads and skid sites, plus other concerns. The staff photograph the situation and publish the results alongside a monitoring report on the RemoteHQ website for the public and other forestry stakeholders to review.

The GeoInsight team

Currently Spencer does this capturing and publishing in the Marlborough region, using a customised electric UBCO bike. Council staff can then use the platform back in the office to point out potential problems to forest managers and landowners, with the aim of stopping environmental issues before they occur. The forest block owner would likely appreciate being alerted of upcoming fixes needed, sparing the cost of unnecessary machinery movement back and forth, remedial work, and councils’ repeat monitoring fees.

GeoInsight isn’t solely focused on forestry. The company provides customised applications and mapping solutions for capturing data on any large pieces of land – for example, GeoInsight has built software for a landscape-scale weed control project in the Tasman region, and recently completed the catchment condition survey of Te Hoiere/Pelorus River catchment in Marlborough, to check what level of fencing was protecting waterways around 15,000 hectares of farm land.

RemoteHQ was conceived after Besaans and Spencer met and shared ideas whilst both working at the Marlborough District Council between 2016 and 2018.

Spencer describes the two as ‘like chalk and cheese’ – in a good way, as they complement one another’s skill sets and experience. Besaans was a business analyst in IT while Spencer worked in forestry compliance. Spencer today manages the operational component of the business and field-work for RemoteHQ, while Besaans heads up the geospatial and software development arm. As Spencer puts it, “Rob is very thorough whereas I’m more hands-on and action-driven.”

GeoInsight began selling geospatial data management products from 2017, and RemoteHQ was conceived at the beginning of 2018 before the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry came into effect. One of the most crucial steps – scaling their customers – went ahead in the first week of Spring 2021. Besaans and Spencer completed a roadshow delivered to four South Island regional councils explaining how their application, approach and refined set of equipment can capture highly detailed information to help forestry block owners comply with national policy and local government rules – in short, helping councils and forest owners work together to prevent another Tolaga Bay disaster.

The main test results the men had to validate RemoteHQ was Marlborough District Council, which has been a patient and encouraging ‘beta tester’ for RemoteHQ. Besaans and Spencer acknowledge Compliance and Monitoring Group Manager Gina Ferguson and Chief Information Officer Stacey Young at MDC as being “extremely supportive and forward thinking by assisting to get this concept off the ground.”

“Marlborough are the early adopters of this novel approach” Besaans says. “The team designed and developed the software, validating and testing our ideas with Marlborough to ensure it was the most efficient, effective and scalable solution possible. Marlborough’s continued support sees the solution grow from strength to strength each year.”

Along with hard toil, there has been a plethora of problem solving and innovation plus plenty of pure startup sweat in the story. A big part of capturing forestry data in Marlborough is achieved by getting inside the “guts” of any forest, riding a device up and down forestry trails called an UBCO bike (a Tauranga-made electric motorcycle ideal for offroad use on all terrain).

Spencer’s other tools are GIS data, 360 degree photographic evidence, and drones which, over the past three years, he has been using and refining to capture a multidimensional perspective of the forestry blocks as quickly and cheaply as possible. This helps identify problems typically missed in traditional monitoring on the ground.

The end goals, ideally, are putting tools in Councils’ hands to get forestry monitoring completed more effectively and help ensure consistent compliance to collaboratively reduce the impacts on our environment.

“All forestry blocks up and down the country should be monitored and mapped to a consistently high standard, and environmental guidance should be consistently applied, thanks to information which is inarguably accurate,” Besaans says.

Now that the South Island roadshow is complete, Besaans and Spencer will focus on their R&D projects, working with the Top of the South Councils to enhance the predictive nature of the software. Forestry block owners are expected to be interested in the product, too, as data on RemoteHQ helps block owners meet their obligations.

Story created in partnership with Marlborough District Council.

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