The use of high-powered drones in logging has positively impacted the industry over the last several years, and Hilltop Aerial has played an important role. Not only did they have a hand in developing one of the first timber-focused drone prototypes, the company also has continued to refine and improve its technology.
Prior to Hilltop Aerial’s inception, longtime loggers Mark Standley, his son, Mark Standley Jr., logger/drone pilot Tim Ruyle, and journeyman logger Mark Deutschman combined their expertise under the company banner of Pacific UAV Technology in 2017. Together they developed the initial logging drone used in the Pacific Northwest – the Hextor 1.
Standley Jr., who’s been logging for more than three decades, explained how the initial drone idea came about. “Several years ago, a cable supplier and friend shared a video of drones being used for logging down in New Zealand. The idea was intriguing, and it wasn’t long before we had that first prototype up and running here in the Pacific Northwest.”
After streamlining their efforts, Hilltop Aerial was formed in 2021, and just like the drones they create, the business took off. The make-up of the company, based in Banks, Oregon, includes Standley Jr. serving as operations manager in addition to his vice president duties at Bighorn Logging. Other Hilltop Aerial team members include Standley’s son, Kyler, who is a co-owner, drone builder, and pilot; his daughter, Madelynn, also a co-owner and office manager; and Trevor Kent, who builds drones and serves as a programmer.
Hilltop Aerial has delivered in excess of 50 drones to more than 40 companies. “We have sold drones now to customers in Washington, Oregon, California, Texas, and Chile in South America,” said Madelynn. “We also provide large-scale drones and services to logging companies, forestry departments, tree planters, power line companies, land owners, fire departments, search and rescue operations, and more.”
Hilltop Aerial’s two drone options include:
Hexacopter – This is the workhorse and top-selling drone. Before you finish your first cup of coffee, the Hexacopter can finish a 5,000-foot road layout in rough terrain.
Quadcopter – A much smaller drone but packed with power. It’s great for smaller operations. You can also add different cameras, ranging from thermal cameras to gimbal cameras that offer full visibility while flying.
For both drone models, a full-service Hilltop Aerial support team is available for any issues or questions.
Given the nature of logging and its physical demands, the benefits of drones quickly began turning heads for a number of reasons. For those companies that have embraced drones in their timber operations, none are likely to go back to what was ‘business as usual.’
Roger Smith of RL Smith Logging Inc. is a convert and believer. “We’ve been using drones now for more than three years,” he said, having purchased a Hilltop Aerial Hexacopter drone in January 2020. “We totally embrace technology in the logging industry, and the drone is at the top of our list for its variety of ways it can assist us in the field. Also, the drone saves us time and money every day we use it, and it has drastically cut down on our manual cable logging efforts.”
RL Smith Logging is based in Elma, which is about 30 miles due west of Olympia, and works primarily in that coastal region of Washington. The company is a contract timber harvester for Rayonier, Weyerhaeuser, Port Blakely, Campbell Global, Anderson & Middleton Lumber, and various private small landowners. RL Smith Logging supplies mills for SPI, Northwest Hardwoods, Local Manufacturing, Northwest Forest Link, Southport Forest Products, Willis Enterprises, and Pac Veneer.
RL Smith Logging relies heavily on Tigercat forestry machines. It is equipped with a pair of Tigercat 870 feller bunchers, a Tigercat 855 with a grapple saw, and two Tigercat 880 machines matched with Waratah 624 processors. In addition it has Tigercat 880 and 890 logging shovels and a Tigercat 625 skidder. Rounding out its inventory of equipment are three Link-Belt 3750 loading shovels and three Doosan 225 loading shovels. The company also has a fleet of 11 log trucks.
Where the drone comes into play is with the company’s Summit Yoder on a Cat 330D and TFS Harvestline on a Cat 568. They also partner with Smith’s nephew, Nate Murray of Roosevelt Logging, which uses the drone in conjunction with its Madill 172 tower.
Using the Hilltop Aerial Hexacopter drone extensively for stringing road lines saves a great deal of time and manpower, noted Smith. “Flying a rope 3,000 feet or more would normally take two guys all day,” he said, “but with the drone, it takes about 15 minutes.” With that kind of efficiency, “The drone paid for itself in the first three months we used it.”
“We can also use drones to examine an area, like steep hills or ravines, by flying the drone overhead to provide a clearer, better look,” added Smith.
Smith’s wife, Carmen, who is the company’s office manager, further explained how RL Smith Logging began using a drone. “We first saw a presentation in 2017 in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the annual Pacific Logging Congress,” she said. “It was a fairly new concept then, but we continued to follow Hilltop Aerial. We finally reached out to them in 2019 to purchase a drone.”
Since then, the Standleys (Madelynn and Kyler) “have been terrific to work with,” she added, “from parts and service to just answering general questions. They quickly respond and then reach out to see if we need anything. Their customer service skills are much appreciated.”
Bruce Baker, a former hook tender and truck driver, is the sole drone pilot for RL Smith Logging. With more than 43 years of experience in logging, he serves on the company’s management team. Baker has racked up more than 1.3 million feet of cable laying distance with the drone.
One of the valuable features of the drone is the iPad on the controller, observed Baker. “You can track the flying time of each project along with the exact distance the drone travels.”
RL Smith Logging has been in business for nearly 32 years and has 34 employees. “We’ve come a long way since starting with just a tower, shovel, D6 Cat, crew bus, pickup, and fire trailer,” said Smith.
In cable logging, the tract is divided into sections and a series of roads or skyline paths with the yarder at the top of a summit. In order to set up a sky line for the carriage, a worker – usually a hook tender or someone else – has to walk up and down the area pulling a haywire or strawline by hand. The haywire is a small cable that is used to pull up the main line or sky line into place. It may be 3,000 feet long. For each 3,000 feet of haywire, there would be 12 250-foot sections to pack and string up and down a hillside, each section weighing about 40 pounds. The task of walking over the terrain and pulling the haywire into place may take a few hours to a couple of days to complete. It’s a tough job and physically demanding. While the worker is performing this task, if the crew is on site, they are waiting for him to complete it.
The drone can perform the same task in minutes. It flies across the area with a rope that is then connected to the haywire. Then the rope can be pulled by a machine to bring in the haywire and the main line. The drone can pull 3,000 feet of light-weight rope in minutes.
In addition, the skyline may need to be moved several times on the job site, depending on the layout of the job. The drone can do it with the rope. With the drone, multiple skyline paths can be strung quickly at one time with the light-weight rope; loggers don’t have to wait until a section is done. RL Smith Logging has 20,000 feet of various lengths of ropes to fly multiple roads for multiple sides.
A yarder logging job may cost a contractor $12-16 per minute in equipment and wages, according to Madelyn. Waiting for these skyline paths to be strung with the cable line is time and money. It also helps contractors since there is a shortage of labor in logging.
There has been a big emphasis to get boots off the ground to improve safety, and the industry has made big strides to accomplish that, noted Smith. “The industry is improving safety, and this saves wear and tear on people and avoids injuries. This is an easy way to accomplish that.”
The drones weigh 30-40 pounds and can pull 70-80 pounds, enough haywire for about 5,000 feet.
The Hilltop Aerial Hexacopter comes with a remote controller, a GoPro camera and mount, two sets of rechargeable batteries, and a battery charger. One set of batteries provides enough power for the drone to perform a 5,000-foot layout. The smaller Quadcopter drone, which comes with the same accessories, has the capacity to perform a 3,000-foot layout. Hilltop Aerial drones are warrantied for one year.
Hilltop Aerial provides training, at least a day or more until the loggers feel comfortable flying the drone alone. Some loggers are good after an hour of practice. Madelyn compared it to learning to ride a bicycle: once you learn the basics of flying, you can do it with your eyes closed. The company also provides 24/7 support.
(For more information about Hilltop Aerial drones, visit the company’s website at www.hilltop-aerial.com.)
All in all, using a drone in logging operations improves safety, efficiency, productivity, and profitability. It reduces fatigue, and keeps loggers more aware of their surroundings.
The two most important reasons to use a drone in logging operations are the safety element and time, according to Standley Jr. “There is also significant dollar savings when you do the math,” he noted.
One unforeseen benefit of using drones is their appeal to the younger generation, observed Standley Jr. He linked their appeal to the popularity of video games. “This has been a good tool for attracting younger employees into the field,” he said. “And, given the manpower shortage, adding a drone to the mix is like giving us an extra person, per se.”