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Robots the wave of a digitized forest industry future

Virtual machine operators can utilize 5G connections to remotely harvest forests

The robots are coming to the B.C. forest sector.

It’s the undeniable wave of the future for forestry companies seeking longterm sustainability in an industry that has come to a high-tech crossroads that will reshape how our forests are managed and utilized.

Rapid advances in remote sensing technology to map, monitor and manage valuable landscape resources are changing how forest health and wildlife activity is measured and the use of remotely-operated robotic harvesting equipment is gaining a foothold in Interior forests. Companies are utilizing new tools to meet goals in environmental stewardship, safety and efficiency.

The ability to operate a crane remotely to load a logging truck means the operator can avoid adverse weather conditions and work safely, day or night. Advances in 5G networks have increased connectivity speed to the point at which real-time virtual control is possible for machine operators using cameras mounted on machines to work wirelessly in the woods.

“We all know forestry is a dangerous business and working around safety and getting people off steep slopes – remote control machines will now allow that,” said UBC forest resources management associate professor Dominik Roeser, who was one of the guest speakers at the B.C. Council of Forest Industries convention in Prince George back in April.

“In the future, you could probably operate your forest machine from your living room, from containers sitting at the top of the hillside, and you’re getting away from this by-yourself operation in the dark to a more communal operation of equipment.”

Machine automation is already being utilized on modern forest machines and Roeser says it’s only a matter of time before there is broad adoption of fully automated equipment in Canadian forests.

Since the 1950s, the number of human-hours it takes to harvest trees has declined almost every year due to advances in mechanical equipment that made harvesting operations more efficient. But that curve has flattened or declined every year since the early 2000s, which Roeser says is a reflection of societal demands for more stringent environmental regulations that have had an impact on logging activities. The evolution of new technologies combined with digitization gives the forest sector hope that trend will be reversed.

Advances as simple as a mobile phone app that instantly determines the volume of a loaded logging truck is an example of supply-chain tracking tools that could save costs for B.C. companies that have long distances to overcome.

“This has been standard on cut-to-length operations for 15 years in Nordic countries and we’re starting this now, and that’s where we should take a step back and think about a lost opportunity,” said Roeser. “I think one of the challenges we’ve always had in B.C. is we’ve had always so much wood, we never had to be super-efficient. In Europe, everything is more scarce and you learn to deal with that scarcity by getting real good and very efficient.”

Until recently, when economically viable tree supplies were abundant in the B.C. Interior, there was no pressing need to innovate.

“Now, with all these challenges we’re seeing, especially in B.C. - the mountain pine beetle and the wildfires - I think we’re forced to think that way and it’s a really big opportunity because the tools are there,” Roeser said. “The context we’re in doesn’t compare to Europe, where (there is) phone coverage everywhere. But I think having that tool and having that visibility in the supply chain is a gamechanger.”

Technology is already radically changing how forests are mapped. The B.C. government is undertaking a project to map the entire province using LiDAR (light detection and ranging) and its lasers to accurately map inaccessible areas to help professionals manage for a range of values across the entire landscape.

Trade schools are using simulators and video screens to train operators inexpensively without the inherent risks of turning loose inexperienced students at the controls of heavy machinery. The simulators provide live feedback to show what they need to improve to achieve maximize efficiency.

The UBC Forest Science Centre recently became home to the first global state-of-the art Forestry Trimble Technology Lab, which will give students access to the most innovative software and hardware tools available to the forest industry to be used for teaching and research.

Just as the health sector is being transformed with remote interactions between patients and healthcare professionals and doctors and nurses using real-time connections to perform remote procedures such as an ultrasound exams, Roeser says the forest sector also stands to benefit from advanced diagnostics for such purposes as repairing machinery or maintaining equipment.

He says electrification is coming. It’s already happening in places like Finland where hybrid electric harvesters are being used, while in Austria and Germany cable yarders use electric carriages to power electric engines.

Electric trucking fleets with interchangeable batteries are also coming to help companies achieve fuel savings and meet emission targets. But Roeser says B.C. will still have to overcome the challenges of its large distances and remote work sites.

The arrival of ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot first introduced to the public in late November, has the power to radically reshape the forest sector. The app essentially harnesses the entire knowledge base of the internet to provide detailed answers and articulate responses to user queries and it is already having an effect on the UBC forestry program. Roeser says all his graduate students are already using it in their studies.

“We have to adapt, there’s no way around it,” he said. “It’s making my life so much easier because I don’t have to answer any questions about coding, ChatGPT does that for me. I don’t have to correct papers anymore, ChatGPT does that for me. It’s unbelievable and I think it will change the way we all will be interacting with each other.”

To prepare for his COFI presentation on digitizing in the forest sector, Roeser asked ChatGPT for suggestions on what he should talk about and it came up with such topics as autonomous forest machines, advanced genetic research and biotechnology, 3-D printing with wood-based materials, carbon capture and storage technology and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

“I think this just shows the potential and the opportunities that AI can provide us today,” said Roeser. “But then I asked about what we need to do in B.C. to turn things around in the forest sector, and ChatGPT crashed.”