A national initiative that is being led by Canada’s forest products research institute, FPInnovations, to develop safe, autonomous, log truck platooning technology for application initially on Canadian resource roads is gaining momentum.
Truck platooning is a convoy of trucks which, for example, could be empty or loaded logging trucks that are electronically linked together. An experienced driver operates the lead truck and the following trucks respond to the lead truck’s movements through a drive-by-wire and autonomy system.
What is driving this initiative is a severe shortage of qualified log truck drivers, with many forest companies experiencing disruptions in log delivery as a result. So there is great motivation to find solutions to overcome this transportation challenge. A consistent, year-round log supply is critical for forest companies to avoid mill shutdowns.
The goal of the Canadian forestry autonomous driving initiative is not to replace qualified and experienced log truck drivers, but to provide companies with options in the face of the current shortage to maintain delivery flow. Part of the challenge is the competition for qualified truck drivers among different resource sectors— particularly in remote areas.
“The mills are located in rural communities and there is a lot of effort on the part of the forest companies to have enough qualified and experienced drivers,” says Jonathan Lethbridge, Manager of Business Analysis and Business Development at FPInnovations.
“This kind of driving is difficult work and takes a lot of skill,” he adds. “Those drivers are hard to find. There are a lot of resources that go into finding and retaining these types of folks. This technology will help the mills because there is a big gap right now. This technology will help them fill that gap.”
The shortage of qualified truck drivers is not a short-term issue. It is chronic, existing even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and is a key contributor to the current problems being experienced in many industries related to disruptions and costs associated with the supply chain.
The application of the technology is aimed at long distance transportation of goods, initially on resource roads where there is an immediate need. While development of autonomous driving and platooning technology is being developed and applied within many transportation sectors, there is nothing really focused on resource road transportation, which presents its own unique challenges for this technology to work safely and consistently.
FPInnovations has partnered with autonomous vehicle technology provider, Robotic Research, to deliver an affordable and safe system by 2026. Several Canadian forest companies have partnered with the institute in this initiative.
“Our main driving force is safety,” says Aisha Manderson, senior engineer and project manager on the FPInnovations autonomous driving initiative. “We are taking a very incremental, graduated approach to testing to achieve a safe product.”
FPInnovations itself is bringing considerable experience to the project, having already conducted extensive research into the viability of truck platooning within the Canadian forest sector. Choosing to work with Robotic Research was a good fit since they had an existing system.
“The previous work that we have done with other technology partners has proven that the concept of platooning is viable on resource roads but we have to pay close attention that the system can operate in our environment,” says Manderson. “In remote areas, we do have instances where we lose GPS. So we cannot rely on GPS and we cannot rely on the ability of the follower vehicle to see the lead vehicle, due to loss of visibility when taking tight turns, driving through dust in summer or whiteouts in winter.”
Right now, the institute is assessing the Robotic Research system and its perception capabilities on resource roads. The company has already developed autonomous driving technology used in other applications. In addition to development of unmanned commercial shuttles and autonomous transit buses, they have also supplied the U.S. Army with autonomous convoys of military vehicles capable of operating on rugged terrain in GPS-denied areas.
“The benefit of going with Robotic Research and their technology is that their operating system is quite similar to what you’d expect to see in a resource environment where there are no lane markings and where there is rough terrain and foliage,” says Manderson. “But we have to make sure that it can be adapted to the Canadian environment.”
The next step expected to begin in 2023 is actual on-road testing. Robotic Research will equip four Mack Granite-brand, Class 8, heavy-duty trucks with their technology. These trucks will be used for the duration of the project, but one of the goals is to ensure that the autonomous system can be adapted to other truck configurations used in the resource sector. Assessing the safety of the system will be paramount throughout and safety drivers will be in the following vehicles as a precaution as research progresses.
“We’re not going to be testing fully loaded log trucks in snow conditions right off the bat,” says Manderson. “We are going to take a gradual approach, where we start with empty trailers, and then loaded, as well as testing them in summer conditions, followed by more challenging winter conditions.”
A rigorous test program will subject the Robotics Research system to various temperature ranges as well as heavy snow, hail and rainfall conditions, which is what a typical Canadian log truck driver would experience. The system will also be tested in other common road conditions, such as steep road grades, tight turns, vibrations caused by washboarding, and GPS signal loss in remote areas. How the system reacts when it encounters common obstacles, such as wildlife and vehicle cut-ins, will also be assessed.
The focus of using this technology on resource roads is only the start. Eventually, FPInnovations is interested in applying this technology with transportation of goods on public roadways. For example, because of the shortage of qualified truck drivers, it may be possible to deploy platoons rather than single wood chip trucks from one forest product facility location to another using this autonomous driving technology. This is typically managed on public roadways. Wood chips are a valuable byproduct produced from the sawmilling process that many sawmills depend on for income.
However, FPInnovations is aware of public perception. Imagine passing a loaded log truck on a public highway with no driver at the wheel because the truck is being controlled by the trained and experienced driver in the lead vehicle. The institute is aware that educating the public about the safety of this transportation method will be part of the advancement and acceptance of this technology down the road.
This autonomous platooning technology is not being developed exclusively for forestry use. The focus generally is on long distance travel on resource roads by any resource sector. Although the initiative’s primary mandate is to find solutions to support the forest industry, FPInnovations says that the development of this technology will greatly benefit other sectors as well, including mining operations and the transportation of products to northern communities.
The institute has a number of other resource-sector partners in this initiative outside of forestry. All told, the project has five industry partners and is open to working with more.
Other Canadian organizations have also launched initiatives to investigate and develop this technology. For example, Logging and Sawmilling Journal wrote about a separate initiative in the province of Ontario to evaluate and introduce autonomous log trucks on resource roads in the isolated northern region of the province where it is difficult to keep and attract qualified log truck drivers. Autonomous vehicle driving tests on resource roads using half-ton trucks travelling in tandem were conducted last summer to prove the viability of this technology. Carmelo Notarbartolo, General Manager for Ontario’s Nawiinginokiima Forest Management Corporation (NFMC), which co-ordinated the project in co-operation with the Centre for Research & Innovation in the Bio-Economy (CRIBE), says despite some delays, they hoped to receive final results from that study this fall.