Could driverless vehicles be the future of timber harvesting?

There is little doubt autonomous machinery will play an important role in forest operations in the future. There are a number of drivers that will facilitate this move, with sustained long-term success promising to boost efficiency and cost-effectiveness for the forest and wood products industry.


While advanced robotic systems are already commonplace in controlled workspaces such as factories, the use of remote controlled or autonomous machinery in more complex environments such as the forest is still in its infancy.

As far back as 2017, FWPA commissioned a study entitled Next generation timber harvesting systems: Opportunities for remote controlled and autonomous machinery.

Led by Professor Rien Visser, School of Forestry, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, the project was developed to help facilitate the opportunity for developing next-generation harvesting systems. It provided a comprehensive review of opportunities within current harvesting practices for either remote or autonomous control, including:

  • felling and processing at the stump
  • extraction to the roadside or designated processing location
  • loading on to the secondary transportation system (i.e. truck)
  • transportation of logs and or stems to either a log yard or final destination

The simplest example is the remote control of a machine where the operator is in clear line-of sight working with wireless controls. Since this form of remote control provides a similar operator experience to that of working in the machine, it is relatively easy for an operator to make the transition. In fact, most modern forestry machines can be readily converted for remote control at relatively low cost, and many working options already exist.

Tele-operation, meanwhile, utilises a specially-created virtual environment, meaning the machine operator can work from a remote location. Benefits include improved operator safety, time savings where locations are hard to reach, and staffing solutions in instances where suitably qualified operators are difficult to find.

The report suggested these areas should be the primary focus for R&D into generating a new market for remotely operated forestry machines.

Autonomous systems would be the next step. These are defined as machines with the ability to perform certain functions without the direct control of a human operator.

“The hardware and technology exist to make almost any aspect of forest operations autonomous. However, for forest operations that are complex and require visual inputs for decision making, software requirements will restrict its implementation,” said Visser.

While there is a plethora of ideas, there are no fully autonomous systems current used for timber harvesting in Australia or New Zealand. However, the extraction and subsequent transportation of stems and logs with GPS-guided systems were found to be most likely the first operations to become ‘robotic’ and have the potential to be achieved in the near future with only modest R&D investment.

Beyond that, with improved visual recognition software, partial automation could be of benefit for tasks such as stem processing. And in the longer term, with a more substantial R&D investment, robotic felling within a plantation environment could also become economically feasible.

The report presents the most immediate opportunities for where R&D efforts should be focussed, and also considers longer-term opportunities for the remote control, tele-operation and automation of forestry operations. It presents examples of existing developments, as well as ideas from both forestry and other industries. You can review it in full by clicking here.

Sweden and Canada unite to advance logging automation

It’s not just Australia and New Zealand that have demonstrated a keen interest in the potential for driverless vehicles in forestry.

In late-2019, during the Sweden-Canada Innovation Days Symposium in Montreal, the Forestry Research Institute of Sweden (Skogforsk) signed a five-year memorandum of understanding (MOU) with FPInnovations — a private Canadian not-for-profit R&D organisation, which spans the pulp and paper industry, forestry operations, and wood and bio-sourced products.

The MOU created opportunities for the international exchange of research findings around automated harvesting, to help the two nations achieve common goals, including safer forest harvesting using automated machinery, increased productivity, and attracting a new generation of forest workers in the face of labour shortages.

Both organisations are currently undertaking their own research projects around automated harvesting, including FPInnovations’ flagship project Forestry 4.0.

The goal of Forestry 4.0 is to help provide cost-effective internet connectivity solutions for remote sites, advance commercialisation of platooning and autonomous truck technologies, and accelerate the introduction of autonomous harvesting machines. Improvements to worker health and safety are also a likely outcome, if the forestry operations carrying the highest risk can be automated.

As part of this work, in mid-2020 FPInnovations acquired two new machines for the purposes of testing and developing their robotic skills.

A mechanical log loader allows researchers to test ways of automating crane function, by adding sensors and hardware that enable the machine to detect logs on the ground while avoiding obstacles such as rocks, large pieces of debris, and even humans!

An unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) allows the team to continue testing various sensors for the advancement of autonomous navigation and real-time inventory while also capturing data on tree species, wood volume, and other forest inventory information to send back to HQ.

Meanwhile, Skogforsk has undertaken a similar project focusing on forest digitalisation and machine automation, including the establishment of a tele-operations lab.

The outcomes of both projects could be combined to solve many of the dilemmas associated with automating an industry that operates in densely wooded and remote locations. The ultimate goal would be a scenario allowing workers to operate machinery deep inside the forest from a far-off location, using advanced wireless technology.

“Both organisations recognise that working together will take each country’s research on forest industry automation further, faster,” said FPInnovations Lead Scientist Francis Charette.

With work ongoing, the MOU supports the two organisations in sharing information and insights via courses, symposia and co-authored reports, in addition to industry education and awareness-raising opportunities.

Source: Wood Business