The technology innovations that are ushering in forestry 4.0 include autonomous harvesting, autonomous transportation and in-forest connectivity, and all three target the sector’s key challenges of labour shortages, performance, safety and sustainability, says Denis Cormier, senior director, Fibre Supply, FPInnovations.
Take the issue of shortage of staff, for example, which is especially pronounced in remote locations. “Not many people will say their dream job involves moving logs from one very remote location to another,” he says. “With automation, we can accomplish two things. We can assign some of the more repetitive tasks to robots or automated processes, and we can attract people who are looking for jobs with a technology component. In addition, technology can reduce training time and help operators reach peak performance sooner.”
Automated processes already work well in mills or warehouses, where the environment can be controlled, says Mr. Cormier, who has worked in the forest operations division of FPInnovations for 30 years, specializing in silvicultural and biomass operations and the development of decision-support tools. “But the forest environment is one of the most chaotic environments for robots, so automated harvesting is very complex. We are working with the Canadian Field Robotics Network led by McGill University on developing machines that are able to work in forest conditions.”
Given the complexity of the challenge, the group is focusing on automating certain processes first, he explains. “For using a completely automated machine in the forest, we talk about a 15-years gap at least. But if we can automate the process of cutting and grabbing a tree or identifying and approaching the next tree, for example, we can make operations more efficient,” says Mr. Cormier. “Automation can also help to avoid exposing people to tough conditions. For situations that are potentially hazardous, why not use a robot?”
Mr. Cormier sees this kind of technology as the next step in advancing automation in the forest sector, where industry partners are particularly interested in innovations that help to make jobs more attractive and improve safety and productivity.
Decision-support tools, such as navigational systems displayed on the windshield as augmented reality, can propose a sound course of action, says Mr. Cormier. “This information would be based on real-time data, captured by the machine’s sensors and translated into actionable items by an algorithm.”
This technology could help to navigate around obstacles or sensitive areas, he says. “If there is moist ground, for example, going around would help to avoid damage to the soil,” he says. “Data can allow us to make good decisions concerning sustainability, for example, dealing with challenging or sensitive environments.”
A field where Mr. Cormier expects rapid transformations is autonomous transport, he says. FPInnovations started platooning tests, where one trucks leads a number of vehicles, last year. He predicts that completely automated vehicles could be implemented in a forest setting sooner than in urban areas, where traffic density makes their deployment more complicated, and perhaps as soon as 2025.
These efforts are all part of “forestry 4.0,” says Mr. Cormier. “Similar to industry 4.0, we are working to enable machine-to-machine communication to advance automation.”
Enhanced sharing of information enables improved processes along the entire value chain, he states. “When information is shared at every step, we enable decisions that are not only valid for a particular point or operation but also link well with the rest of the chain.”
Produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s Editorial Department was not involved in its creation.