Image

Autonomous trucks cutting a path in forestry sector

17 November 2023

In an untamed Quebec forest, a Canada lynx watches curiously from the bush as a platoon of Mack Granite logging trucks, one of them operated autonomously, passes by on a remote logging road. Meanwhile in Maryland, engineers from Robotic Research Autonomous Industries (RRAI) watch the lynx on screens set up to monitor the performance of the autonomous truck platoons serving a Resolute Forest Products facility.

This is the rugged Canadian wilderness, where forestry trucks encounter some of the toughest conditions imaginable. And this, according to Robotic Research, is the perfect environment for the near-term automation of commercial trucking.

Gabe Sganga is head of commercial growth for RRAI. The company got its start in automation more than 20 years ago, before anyone in the commercial trucking sector was even thinking about automating heavy trucks. Robotic’s origins involved working with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop automated military vehicles. In recent years, the company realized its AutoDrive self-driving platform had commercial potential as well.

“The leadership team at the company looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve built an end-to-end technology stack that’s really focused on off-road. What are some commercial uses for this technology?’ And one of the greatest commercial use cases that we found was forestry, in areas where you have a lack of human resources or where they’re incredibly remote and it’s just hard to get people to do the jobs,” Sganga said.

While much of the focus on the automation of trucking has focused on the middle mile, RRAI felt the greatest potential for early success would be off-road.

Carving a path off-road

“From a regulatory perspective, that’s a pretty scary place to be for the next few years,” Sganga said of middle-mile applications. “We really want to focus on places where autonomy can make a difference in the immediate term.”

Meanwhile, FPInnovations, a Quebec-based research body focused on the forestry sector, was working with members to address challenges including the lack of professional log haulers. It connected with RRAI to embark on a project that would test autonomous truck platoons on off-highway logging routes to get logs from the forest to the mill safely and efficiently.

“Our mission is to help the industry be more competitive and to help the transformation of the industry as well,” Stephane Renou, president and CEO of FPInnovations, said of the work. “This project actually fulfilled both goals.”

Up to 40% of the cost of wood can be traced to transport costs, he pointed out. And forestry companies are struggling to find drivers to haul product in remote areas on rough roads. “It has become a bottleneck to be able to transport that biomass from the north to the south and to the mills efficiently.”

Renou said FPInnovations initially felt going straight to full autonomy was “a step too far.” But he added, “When we start looking at those concepts of platooning, basically getting another truck to follow the lead truck, then it becomes interesting.”

Perfect for platooning

The lead truck in a platoon is piloted by a human driver who establishes a breadcrumb trail, so to speak, for the subsequent trucks to follow, even where there are no paved roads. The following units (one in the initial tests, but more are possible) are equipped with lidar and other technologies allowing them to follow the lead truck without a human driver. FPInnovations and RRAI successfully concluded benchmark testing in July and continue to operate the AutoDrive-equipped Mack Granite platoons today.

But Robotic Research didn’t choose to start out in an off-road environment because it would be easy. “We think the harder challenge is operating in the really multidimensional, undefined spaces where there are no paved roads, and in some cases, there aren’t even roads,” Sganga said. “If you can do that well and operate in the Canadian wilderness, and you can operate in the Permian Basin of Texas where temperatures can approach 49 C in the summer, then you can do just about anything.”

The temperatures, of course, are quite different in Northern Quebec, and so too are the road conditions. But Sganga said the company must be able to handle all weather and road conditions. “If a vehicle that’s manually operated can handle the weather, then we have to be able to do the same,” Sganga said. “So far AutoDrive has done a fantastic job. From a perception and path planning perspective, we’re doing fantastic.”

Another challenge encountered in forestry that wouldn’t be an issue in paved cities is the roads themselves are constantly evolving. The forestry roads are recreated every couple of years, and can even experience changes day to day based on the traffic they encounter.

Photo: RRAI

More >>

Source: trucknews

Read More
Image

Earlybird rates end TODAY

Earlybird rates end this Friday for Environmental Forestry Conference On 25-26 June, ourFIEA Annual Environmental Forestry Conference is running. Registrations are going very well. We bring practical foresters together with local regulators and national policy-makers to debate and bring constructive ...
Read more
Image

Decarbonising transport & logistics

New Zealand environmental specialist, Toitū, recently held a panel to discuss how New Zealand’s transportation and logistics industry, the nation’s second-largest emissions source, can take effective climate action. They shed light on the critical pressures facing supply chains and how to respond ...
Read more
Image

FIEA wood residues conference: time for action

Low carbon economies, extreme weather events, and building resilient domestic supply chains are critical issues in 2024 and beyond. In New Zealand, this has created opportunities for the forestry sector, including significant investments in forest residues. Harvesting regulations are mandating more wood be collected from the forest ...
Read more
Image

Calling all NZ loader operators – be part of this study

Driven by mechanisation, traditional career pathways in forestry crews are evolving. As part of the Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme, ‘Te Mahi Ngahere i te Ao Hurihuri – Forestry Work in the Modern Age’, the Scion Human Factors research group ...
Read more
Image

Kiwi bird surprises at Rosvall Sawmill

Workers at Rosvall Sawmill near Whangārei, New Zealand, had an unexpected visitor, a fully grown kiwi bird. The bird casually strolled into the mill early one Monday morning, and spent a few hours exploring the premises before it found a ...
Read more
Image

Every second counts

During hot and dry periods, there is a serious risk of wildfires. Moreover, a single spark can be enough to start one, in which case every second counts. Having fire extinguishing equipment close at hand can make all the difference ...
Read more
Image

Superhuman AI – smarter than every human by 2025

Billionaire tech boss Elon Musk has recently predicted that superhuman artificial intelligence (AI), surpassing human intellect, could become a reality as soon as next year. If this kind of prediction becomes true, are humans ready to embrace that machines can ...
Read more
Image

Swiss develop drone to explore forest canopy

Inspired by cockroaches, Swiss researchers have developed a new drone which can push away obstacles and move past them. In the future, it will be used to measure biodiversity in remote areas. Environmental monitoring in areas with dense vegetation is ...
Read more
Image

NZ forestry H&S statistics updated – March 2024

Safetree NZ has released their H&S stats dashboard for March 2024. WorkSafe provides statistics on forestry fatalities and workplace incidents. These investigations help inform us of any key issues or trends as they come to light. Overall, there is a downward trend ...
Read more