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Remote command and control of logging equipment: the way of the future?
By Tony Kryzanowski
It’s time for a reality check. Just exactly what does the logging sector really have to offer to attract young people to the industry?
That is the 1000 pound elephant sitting in the room with both forest industry executives and logging contractors.
I believe we are on the cusp of a new technology revolution that will lead to remote command and control of logging equipment. It will be fueled by the demands of a new generation of young people entering the workforce raised on a steady diet of “Call of Duty: Black Ops Two”, mobile apps, and television images of military drones controlled by operators sitting in a temperature-controlled command and control centre 5,000 kilometres away.
Consider the current working environment being offered to potential logging employees. The day starts with a fairly long commute from home into an environment where bears outnumber human beings or it involves a bunk in a camp where the work routine is typically 12 hours of work followed by seven hours of sleep and five hours of boredom.
There is nothing like waking up to find that the temperature has dropped to a frosty -25 degrees Celsius, knowing that your day will involve sitting in a bone cold cab for the first hour of the day, followed by fiddling with the temperature controls for the rest of the day because your feet are either freezing or cooking.
Then there’s that message every couple days on your cell phone from your wife or girlfriend, wondering when you are coming home.
I know that logging contractors and equipment manufacturers are doing everything humanly possible to make the work environment as pleasant as possible. But in reality, it often comes down to the temperature outside and wages and benefits. In some environments, logging contractors simply have to pay the going rate, which of course is tough to swallow when it comes time to do an annual reckoning with the accountant.
In the short term, the industry is correct to mount a more aggressive recruiting campaign. But what’s the medium to long term solution? It’s as close as possible to remote logging and I believe that equipment manufacturers have the ability to design the equipment to function this way. Explain to me why it is necessary for an operator to sit in the cab of a feller buncher, skidder, delimber, processor, harvester processor, forwarder or log loader? Well, that’s because the equipment is designed that way, but my point is that it doesn’t have to be designed that way in today’s world.
Consider, for example, that John Deere demonstrated a walking, robotic feller buncher three years ago that had the ability to move in all directions and adapt automatically to any terrain. If you don’t believe me, check it out on YouTube.
Sawmill equipment suppliers are also marketing entirely machine-based lumber grading systems, which is another example of using advanced computer technology to benefit the forest industry. So in my opinion, remote logging is much closer to science fact than science fiction, and will attract the next generation of workers.
It is possible to design logging equipment that can be controlled like a military drone. What it really boils down to is a high definition imaging system and communication software.
Imagine showing up for work to a building in Grande Prairie instead of a cutblock an hour from home, where you sit in the centre of an operator’s station offering a 360 degree view from a camera mounted on a feller buncher, which used to be the operator’s cab. If they can install this type of vision technology on cell phones, why not logging equipment? All the equipment functions could be transmitted via joystick movements from a command centre instead of from the cab. While the equipment is sitting in -25 degrees Celsius, the temperature in the command centre is a comfortable +20 degrees.
In my view, this should be the work environment that the logging industry should aim to offer as soon as possible to its future employees. The benefits are many. The workplace is perhaps a short 15 minute commute from home and the dress code is khaki pants and a polo shirt.
Remote operation also addresses many safety issues, such as working alone in a typically remote environment and dealing with the inherent risk of falling trees. It is also highly likely that workers will be more productive working in a climate-controlled environment vs. the cramped quarters of a delimber cab. This work environment also appeals to young employees, many of whom are also probably avid gamers. And it will attract more women to the industry.
So, if the forest industry is serious about competing for tomorrow’s employees, it has to do a better job of working with equipment manufacturers to investigate the use of new ideas like remote command and control. Don’t take my word for it. Ask your teenage kids what they think of this work environment as opposed to what’s available now.
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