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Portable probe reduces workload.

A Sault Ste. Marie web development firm is using today's technology to eliminate some of the grunt work out of forestry research field sampling.


Digital Web Works has developed a handheld soil carbon probe for the Ontario Forest Research Institute (OFRI) that will be used to assess forestry harvesting practices.

Though still in the prototype stage, the data collection device is a soil spectrometer using the latest LED (light-emitting diode) technology.

The soil probe, expected to be ready for field use next spring, is a collaborative two-year partnership that includes OFRI, Mikro-Tek and Onset Computers.

Branching out into forestry-related R & D isn't new for general manager Shawn Dagenais and the seven employee company. They previously developed a carbon dioxide machine that measures below-ground soil respiration.

The five-year-old company was originally established for forestry projects but evolved into web design and promotional print work, which has become a successful business off-shoot.

They've designed the website for the new Steelback Centre and are redeveloping the City of Sault Ste. Marie's website to be mobile compatible for wireless devices.

With the carbon probe, the company is using OFRI as a "test bed" in building a library of information collected at their sites across Northern Ontario. The device will collect field data that will be web accessible through an information library.

Trained as a forester, Dagenais earned a computer science degree and works as a hardware technician for OFRI by supplying them with environmental sensors for their weather and soil moisture stations.

Monitoring soil carbon content is important for OFRI to determine the effect of forest management practices on soil quality.

He began talking with soil scientists about devising some portable instrumentation that would reduce their collection and lab costs.

The current way of collecting samples involves physically hauling hundreds of bags back to the lab for analysis.

It can be an expensive proposition with lab costs running about $30 per sample, not to mention putting a crew in the field for an extended period.

"We can save in field collections because if you're sending out a field crew for 10 days to collect samples, they can only bring back as much as their bags and truck," says Dagenais.

In working with OFRI's chemistry department, the company developed the probe to measure carbon content, soil moisture and particle size. "In developing the application we needed to capture those two other parameters in order to properly quantify soil carbon.

They can collect an unlimited amount of samples in the field, restricted only by battery life.

"Where they would normally collect 500 samples in a year, they could collect 5,000," says Dagenais. "It only takes a minute or two to measure the soil in the field."

Soil researchers can collect a baseline measurement at a forest plot, then repeatedly go back for many years to increase their sample size and build their library.

The probe is calibrated for Ontario soils, but eventually the device will be tested in Chile by a private silviculture company.

"For the rest of this year we're basically in-house," says Dagenais. "We've got thousands of little (soil) petri dishes with known carbon values. We'll get the sample location and carbon value to determine the regression equations and basically calibrate the instrument."

The present prototype doesn't display sample results for the user to read.

Dagenais and colleague Andrew Patterson are still working on how to present that data.

Currently, the results are sent to a website used to store sample data and which contains some of local field trials. Though not a marketing website, "this is one of the ways we may use the Internet later on" by having the client upload the data.

Since the technology rights belong to Digital Webworks, Dagenais says the probe has commercial potential beyond their OFRI partnership. They hope to eventually market it to other forestry--and even mining--clients by calibrating the probe to measure other properties and elements.


Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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