By Tony Kryzanowski
Convoys of loaded logging trucks—with an experienced and qualified log truck driver operating the lead vehicle, followed by two semi-autonomous logging trucks mimicking his driving actions and pathway some distance behind—could soon become a reality in northern Ontario.
Spearheaded by Ontario’s Nawiinginokiima Forest Management Corporation (NFMC) in co-operation with the Centre for Research & Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), they have partnered with Ottawa-based Provectus Robotics Solutions, in what has been described as an “aggressive” pilot project to test, prove and implement this technology on a commercial scale as soon as possible.
NFMC manages the Pic and White River Forests located in northwestern Ontario. The Sustainable Forest License (SFL) area consists of a total potential annual allowable harvest of 1.6 million cubic metres of wood.
While it is difficult at present to predict exactly when semi-autonomous log trucks could begin delivering logs on a regular basis to area sawmills, Carmelo Notarbartolo, General Manager for NFMC, says should the technology prove viable during the current pilot project, he expects them to appear sometime after the upcoming winter log haul season with full implementation not likely till 2023.
The trucks will only travel on controlled forestry roads which still allow public access.
The pilot project has begun and consists of a pickup truck and Class 8 log truck phase on a forestry road used to deliver logs to the White River sawmill.
Notarbartolo says the road features “a bit of everything”, being neither entirely flat, straight or wide. The general view is that if the technology works on this existing log haul road, then it will likely work more widely throughout the region.
The initial onsite phase of the pilot project—where two pick-up trucks equipped with the Provectus technology drove on the actual logging road—was completed in July. The trucks, with a driver in the lead vehicle, drove a distance of 50 kilometres several times at the expected 70 kilometre per hour speed of Class 8 log trucks.
“It was very successful,” says Jason Scheib, Director, Business Development for Provectus Robotics Solutions. “We had very dusty conditions, crossed narrow bridges, and navigated some very steep slopes with very rough roads.”
Implementation of semi-autonomous logging truck transportation technology is being driven by a severe shortage of qualified log truck drivers serving forestry enterprises in northern Ontario.
Local forest companies have expressed concern about logs sitting in decks waiting for delivery longer than desired, creating a bottleneck in the supply chain from cutblocks to mills in the region. This causes both supply problems for area mills and financial consequences for logging contractors.
Notarbartolo says he knows of no facilities in the region that have literally run out of wood, “but it has come close.”
Also, local efforts to train log truck drivers have proven unsuccessful because even if individuals complete training, they have many avenues on where to work within the transportation sector.
The concept of log truck convoys with only one certified driver in the lead could mean significant operational changes not only in northern Ontario but throughout Canada. Every region is experiencing the same, severe, qualified log truck driver shortage.
A number of factors are contributing to this shortage, the major one being retirement of older drivers and fewer millenials taking up the occupation because of the challenging hours and working conditions required for this job. There also tends to be a high turnover rate among log haul drivers and the cost for owner/operators to purchase trucks has in some cases doubled since 2007.
At present, there are about 20,000 general trucking jobs vacant in Canada, which is a vacancy rate of about 7.5 percent. Being a somewhat specialized trucking endeavor—often in remote areas—the challenge of attracting qualified individuals to drive log trucks is even worse, although hard numbers are difficult to come by. There is no doubt, however, that many logging contractors have purchased their own trucks and have hired and trained their own drivers because of a shortage of dependable and qualified owner/operators.
After this initial test involving two pick-ups, Provectus planned to return and test a three-truck convoy to demonstrate that they are ready to move to full-size, Class 8 trucks.
The information being transmitted to the following semi-autonomous vehicles from the lead vehicle includes global positioning system (GPS) data as well as throttle, brake and steering inputs so that they can mimic as closely as possible what the driver in that lead vehicle is doing. There are also failsafe systems built in so that if the front vehicle encounters a problem, then the following vehicles will stop and wait. And there is also an emergency stop button in each truck.
“If the lead vehicle crashes, the two following vehicles are just going to see that incident as the vehicle stopped,” says Scheib. “We may actually have them stop three to four hundred metres before they reach that point, as the fixed safety distance.”
In terms of extra work for the lead driver, he says that they don’t expect him to do anything differently, but he must drive within the rules of the road, such as driving at the established speed limit.
The main challenge is making the leap to full Class 8 trucks. It will be up to NFMC to provide those trucks for technology installation. Notarbartolo says there are opportunities for forest companies and log haul contractors to share the cost and as a Crown corporation, NFMC has financial support available to help with the cost of installing this technology.
Scheib emphasizes that implementing this technology will not take jobs away. In fact, he expects that there will be an equal amount, if not more, jobs provided because the qualified truck driver will not be working in isolation in the wilderness. The truck convoy will include ‘safety drivers’ behind the wheel of each vehicle.
“The lead vehicle will have a fully licensed, very experienced driver and then with the two trucks behind, the intention is to have maybe a lesser license holder because people with that type of training are much easier to come by,” Scheib says.
Their technology is designed so that if there is any kind of driver input, like touching the brake, accelerator or steering wheel, then the following vehicles come under manual control of the safety driver.
However, as the years go by and there is an acceptance and confidence around the technology, the plan is for those vehicles to operate without a safety driver.
At present, Provectus Robotic Solutions is determining how much distance to leave between each vehicle. The terrain in which the logging trucks operate will likely determine that.
“For instance, if we are in terrain that is slippery, we are going to be following at a further distance and it may not even be in the line of sight of the lead vehicle,” Scheib says.
This is not the only semi-autonomous log truck transportation project underway in Canada. Although this project has a significant head start, FPInnovations has announced a partnership with Robotic Research LLC on a multi-year project to develop, test and validate an off-road platooning system for the forest industry (see The Edge section in the May/June 2021 issue of Logging and Sawmilling Journal).
FPInnovations says that its project will include trials of log truck platooning on actual resource roads that feature dust, sharp curves and steep slopes.
Provectus Robotics Solutions brings considerable experience to this pilot project from their contract work with the defense industry. Their system is already designed to manage those types of issues. They have developed a software package that can be installed with some tweaking over a wide range of vehicles working in a controlled access environment like logging roads.
“The research and development portion of it is really done from our standpoint,” Scheib says. “We have eleven years of experience in autonomous navigation and especially in off-road and dynamic environments. Most of the projects we have done in the past have been with extreme terrain vehicles which can traverse just about anything.”
Military vehicles with this technology installed have to survive and operate effectively and reliably in environments where they could encounter heavy weather obstacles like rain, snow, fog and smoke, while also needing to be user-friendly for the driver and system owner.
“We have a lot of experience in this market which lends itself very nicely to our involvement in this project—and our technology is 100 per cent Canadian--developed,” Scheib says.
If the pilot project succeeds, it may even be possible to expand the size of the truck convoy to up to five trucks.
One of the challenges of working in a remote environment like northern Ontario is the reliability of the GPS signal. Provectus Robotic Solutions is complementing its GPS telemetry system with what Scheib calls a mapping system of existing roads that the trucks can rely on, should the GPS signal prove unreliable.
Another challenge is to make sure that debris like snow, ice and mud don’t block signals from reaching sensors.
Scheib says that implementing this semi-autonomous transportation technology in this forest industry application is only the tip of the iceberg. They are interested in working with the forest sector to discuss other potential applications. One opportunity is within the controlled access environment of a millyard where lumber products are being transported repeatedly from one location to another.
On the Cover:
The payback in doing your due diligence on mobile equipment purchases can be rewarding in a number of ways, everything from more efficient operations to operator satisfaction—and the Weyerhaeuser sawmill in Princeton, B.C. is seeing that in spades these days, with their new Sennebogen 850E machine, the largest Sennebogen log loader operating in Western Canada (Cover photo by Paul MacDonald).
Log haul convoys being lined up …
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