Robots are coming to NZ forests

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Stung by workplace accidents and deaths, the forestry industry is hoping robots will soon take over the most dangerous jobs. Will Harvie from Stuff News reports.

"No worker on the slope, no hand on the chainsaw."

That was the theme of a recent research project funded by the New Zealand forestry industry and Government to reduce accidents and deaths in our forests.

While funding has ended for one aspect, it's still a long-term goal and university researchers such as Dr Rien Visser, director of studies in forest engineering at the University of Canterbury, foresee autonomous felling machines, robot trucks delivering logs to mills and drones replanting forests – eventually and maybe.

While other researchers are looking deep into robotic tree fellers, Visser takes the view that robotic chainsaws are some time away – and there's lower hanging fruit to tackle first.

He also doesn't foresee robots with humanoid features – two legs, two arms and perhaps a head – clomping through New Zealand forests, as fun or frightening as that might be.

Forestry robots will be wheeled or tracked vehicles – uncool, but high-tech industrial beasts built to survive the steepest terrains, festooned with video cameras, connected to the internet cloud, but still overseen by a human. Think of big bulldozers, without a cab for human control.

Visser, in a public lecture earlier this month that marked his promotion as a full professor, said mechanisation of the forestry industry had already come to New Zealand. There are fewer hands on chainsaws and more big machines felling and processing trees, especially on flat land.

Once they are cut, logs have to be extracted from the forest floor to a cleared, flat area called a "landing".

Log extraction is the most promising aspect of autonomous forestry, Visser says. In a January report he wrote for Forest and Wood Products Australia, Visser called it the "most realistic" area for autonomous development.

These days, machines called skidders and forwarders driven by humans are used for extraction on flat and rolling terrain.

Extraction is predictable but sometimes dangerous work, Visser says. Autonomous machines could work on relatively well-defined trails in the forest. They don't need to think much, just move along the trail back and forth, extracting logs to the landing.

"However, for such extraction systems to become very productive and cost effective, [they] need to be able to self-load and unload," Visser wrote in the Australian report. In other words, robots need to be able to identify the trees or logs in the forest, know how to pick them up, and stack them.

He thought autonomous extraction technology was a "near-future opportunity", one to five years away.

Agriculture is already leading the way with this. Driverless machines have been developed to harvest wheat fields, for example. Guided by GPS, they drive simple, straight lines back and forth. Alternatively, a human drives the harvester but the tractor pulling the grain cart is driverless and positions itself with 5cm accuracy with GPS, radar and lasers. It's called "precision agriculture" and Visser says the technology is mature.

Similar technology is used at airports: Driverless shuttle buses drive strict routes with predictable hazards and stops.

Once logs have been extracted to the landing, they need to be processed, and this is another near future opportunity for automation, Visser says. Work on landings is dangerous because it mixes humans, heavy machinery and logs. It can also be monotonous and workers are exposed to the weather.

Systems exist that can autonomously scan logs and make judgments about length and quality. The next step is for robotic systems that can cut, sort and load them.

The Forest Growers Research has a proposal before funders at the moment for work on such a conveyor belt system, says Russell Dale, R&D manager at Forest Growers Research, the applied science arm of the Forest Growers Association. The association harvests about 80 per cent of the annual take and is funded by a levy on cut trees.

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