By Tony Kryzanowski
Technology is moving ahead quickly—but don’t expect satellite-guided feller bunchers without operators to appear in the Canadian forest any time soon. However, there is the potential to introduce more advanced systems like artificial intelligence, robotics, telematics and automation to address many day-to-day repetitive functions when operating logging equipment in the field.
Over the next decade, it’s likely that new equipment innovations will lean more towards partial automation systems and advanced technology that assist the operator with decision making that improves overall productivity.
That’s the view of FPInnovations Forest Harvesting Division managers Jean-Francois Gingras and Denis Cormier, who are investigating the opportunities for inclusion of more advanced technology in logging equipment as part of their work at Canada’s forest products research institute.
They say that there is potential for greater integration of advanced systems for equipment engaged in repetitive functions in both the forest cutblock and in the millyard for activities like roadside processing, delimbing, chipping, forwarding, skidding, and transporting logs and stacks of lumber.
“There are a lot of repetitive tasks out there that can eventually be automated,” says Gingras, who is in charge of the fibre supply research program at FPInnovations. “I think we are going to see a step-by-step kind of progression.”
He provided the example of John Deere’s recent introduction of its intelligent boom control system where it simplifies the operator’s tasks.
“I think that is going to be the mantra: having the operator focus on more strategic decisions by removing some of the repetitive functions,” says Gingras. “And eventually we will achieve full automation and robotics with no operators whatsoever. We can certainly leverage some of the machine learning techniques to basically have the machine learn some of these repetitive tasks and keep adjusting their work through machine learning algorithms.”
He adds that the step-by-step approach where loggers can expect an incremental introduction of more advanced technology is definitely the feedback being provided by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), the companies that manufacture logging equipment.
However, there are certain factors that could accelerate implementation of advanced systems into logging whose influence is largely unknown at this time. One is the difficulty of attracting more young, tech-savvy, workers to the industry. To these potential employees, current remote and environmentally harsh jobsites aren’t exactly great selling points. Also, both loggers and companies report that a lot of the ‘easy wood’ has been harvested, meaning that the best remaining wood tends to be located in riskier environments, like on steep slopes. Another factor is the need to improve the overall efficiency of the supply chain to reduce the cost of fibre.
To some extent, the question of how quickly more advanced systems become part of OEM equipment offerings will come down to cost. In the large scheme of things, forestry is a fairly small piece of the heavy equipment sector and automation research is expensive. One way that the forest industry could witness fast tracking of advanced systems into forest machines is to take advantage of research and system deployment already occurring in other industries, and potentially adapting those systems to the forest environment.
As part of its initiative to keep tabs on what’s happening with the development and deployment of advanced systems for heavy equipment, FPInnovations hosted a three-day workshop entitled, “Robotics in the Forest” in 2015.
What the workshop revealed is that there are a number of other industries, like agriculture, mining, and oil and gas, that have been researching and in some cases, deploying equipment that have robotic, automation and advanced telematics features. A new collaborative initiative called HEAVI (see sidebar story on page eight), with funding from the federal government, is being spearheaded by the Delphi Group, an Ottawa consulting group, to investigate how each industry is engaged in researching and deploying these advanced systems—and where there may be opportunities to share information, transfer knowledge, and deploy advanced systems in new industrial applications.
“The first step will be to organize a workshop to identify what the needs are of the various sectors around some of these advanced technologies,” says Gingras. “From that workshop, we hope to lead into other collaborations.”
The forest industry faces some unique communications and environment challenges that will fundamentally influence the speed at which advanced systems are introduced into logging beyond the immediate cutblock.
Denis Cormier works at FPInnovations in the areas of remote sensing, modeling, and decision support tools. He says that the ‘Robotics in the Forest’ workshop created the seed for an internal initiative at FPInnovations called Forest2User 4.0. Among the initiative’s goals is to find ways to establish and improve the exchange of huge amounts of operational data in real-time between home base and logging equipment as well as between pieces of logging equipment. This would result in the capability for real-time monitoring, analysis and adjustments in logging activities, with the goal of better overall decision making. The hope is to more accurately tie harvesting activities with mill processes, to ensure that the right log profile is being supplied to the mill based on customer orders. Forest2User 4.0 research is taking place in four specific areas.
The first is called ‘the real environment,’ investigating such areas as satellite imagery, enhanced forest management, remote sensing and LIDAR.
“To make robotics possible is to be able to describe the environment in which the machine is going to be working so that the machine operates efficiently in that particular environment,” says Cormier, “and that type of information is still not available, or not available at a level where the machine can use it on the spot.”
A big part of this challenge is the complexity of the work environment where logging occurs. In most cases, it is virgin forest with a variety of hills, creeks, valleys, and changing topography. Also, tree sizes and species themselves are constantly changing—unlike a uniform wheat or corn field—with weather also playing a significant role in the logging environment.
“Unlike agriculture where the working environment is generally very open and level, in the forest environment for your machine to interact on a real-time basis, all your sensors have to be equipped in a way that your machine can make a quick decision based on an environment that is going to be changing every minute that you are progressing,” says Cormier. “It is going to be a lot more complicated challenge than in most other environments.”
The second area of study is described as developing the ‘Internet for the Forests’, making it possible for forest machines to be able to communicate back and forth in real-time over longer distances with mills, base locations, or even other machines—and exchange large volumes of data in a ‘connected forest’ type environment.
Cormier says the key to introducing advanced systems into logging beyond the operator’s interaction with the machine is development of cost-effective communication infrastructure.
The challenge is that loggers often work in remote areas, where in some cases only very expensive satellite communication is possible. If data transmission is being filtered because of the cost of transmission, this defeats the whole purpose of introducing advanced systems beyond the cutblock.
“If the machine is unable to communicate back and forth, you are not going to be able to do anything tangible,” says Cormier. “So the first step is to be able to interact with these machines on a real-time basis if possible, and if not, at least over a very short time period. That cannot be achieved unless we solve this Internet of forest issue first. This is the one that is the most urgent.”
Because the communication infrastructure beyond satellite communication is non-existent in many areas where logging takes place, it becomes a question of whether there is a business case for communication companies to want to invest in the infrastructure, which will therefore influence how quickly more advanced systems become part of remote logging operations. It may become necessary for forest companies to install their own communication infrastructure, or cost-share with other industries using the same land base.
The third area of study investigates ‘advanced procurement systems’ which will allow forest machines to react automatically to the environment in which they are working through the use of multiple sensors, automation, robotics, remote operation, and optimized log transport. This has an obvious dependency on advancements in the first two areas of study.
The fourth area of study is data analytics to connect the client’s needs with mill processing and log harvesting activities, starting with the right logs delivered to the right mills, and also investigating the potential for just-in-time production.
For now, the focus seems to be on the implementation of advanced systems where it makes sense within the cutblock or in the mill yard.
“You can probably assume that yard machinery working in a controlled environment or anything that is working in the forest at roadside will be automated a lot faster than any machinery working in the bush, like a roadside delimber or chippers, because these machines are stationary and you are just feeding it,” says Cormier,
However, once the target becomes much more mobile equipment working in a lesser controlled environment, “you are looking at the longer term future for that.
What have individual Canadian resource industries already done to integrate advanced systems like robotics, automation, and remote operation into their heavy equipment?
And is there a desire to collaborate on research, development and deployment of these technologies across multiple resource sectors?
Those are two key questions that the Delphi Group, an Ottawa-based consultancy working with the private sector in the sustainability, climate change and clean technology sphere, hopes to answer with an upcoming workshop that will include representatives from the forestry, mining, oil and gas, and agriculture sectors. It’s called the Heavy Equipment Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (HEAVI).
Bruce Dudley, senior vice-president at Delphi, says he recognized an opportunity to organize a gathering of representatives from all these groups, based upon the work that Delphi has done with individual clients from each of these sectors, as well as industry associations.
The factors driving greater integration of advanced systems into heavy equipment are de-carbonization of industrial activity, health and safety, and human resource challenges, especially in remote areas.
“If you look at forestry in particular, where you have increasingly steeper grades where you are harvesting, the combination of humans in and around equipment becomes increasingly dangerous,” says Dudley.
The initiative will delve into three areas: electrification of equipment, autonomous and semi-autonomous operation, and robotics.
“The concepts of electrification, autonomous operation and robotics aren’t new to any of these sectors,” says Dudley. “They are all making progress in different ways. But what is unique about this idea is that there are common, horizontal areas of opportunity across all four sectors.”
He adds that the value of collaboration comes from the fact that no one sector is likely large enough to command the kind of research, development and deployment testing for these types of technology.
“But together, across all four sectors, Canada has some unique attributes in that it is highly active from the aspect of oilsands, hard rock and soft rock mining, forestry and agriculture,” says Dudley. “So when you combine the four sectors together, the opportunity is much greater.”
One of the key questions that this industry collaboration will seek to discover is just how available technologies related to electrification, autonomous and semi-autonomous operation and robotics already are, where and how are they being deployed across these resource sectors, and what are the technical challenges standing in the way of future development.
Dudley says among the biggest challenges that forestry will face regarding greater integration of these advanced systems into logging are that these activities are generally quite remote and highly mobile, with a constantly changing landscape.
“I think that the telecommunications aspect is more challenging for forestry than it is for other sectors,” he says. “Luckily, this is a strength for Canadian innovation.”
On the Cover:
The Seneca Sawmill Company has been part of the Eugene, Oregon landscape for more than 60 years. It’s now nearing the completion of a second $65 million upgrade which included upgrading the dimensional mill with new equipment and technology, installing additional dry kilns and upgrading its dimension mill planer (Photo by Diane Mettler).
More computers in the cutblock
For the forest industry, the cutblock is expected to be the focus of advanced systems and technology for equipment over the short term—but don’t expect to see any logging equipment without operators quite yet.
Tracked performance—without the tracks
Moore’s Logging of Alberta says its new TimberPro 840C combo machine—an eight-wheeled forestry machine which can function as a harvester, processor, forwarder or clam bunk skidder—is able to deliver track machine power, without the track machine issues.
Solving steep slope challenges—to a T
The T-Winch, a new to Canada, European-developed tethered skidder assist system, is solving multiple steep slope issues for Alberta logger Kelly McGlynn.
Seneca sees second mill upgrade
The Seneca Sawmill Company in Oregon is nearing the completion of a second $65 million upgrade which—on the heels of a similar size upgrade during the recession—means a total investment of $130 million, clearly reflecting the confidence the company’s owners have in the industry.
Bonus Christmas gift
The residents of Hornepayne, Ontario received a bonus Christmas gift late last year, with the shuttered sawmill/biomass power plant in the town coming back to life, thanks to industry veteran, Frank Dottori.
Included in this edition of The Edge, Canada’s leading publication on research in the forest industry, are stories from the Canadian Wood Fibre Centre, Alberta Innovates, Alberta Agriculture, the Forest Products Association of Canada and FPInnovations.
The Last Word
It’s time for Canada to get our economic mojo back—with a new softwood lumber deal, says Tony Kryzanowski.