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Auto grading and lifting of seedlings

Ben McGuinness

Ben McGuinness

A University of Waikato graduate student has devised a system that looks set to enhance forestry planting processes. Source: Timberbiz

Ben McGuinness is studying his PhD in mechanical engineering in the Faculty of Science and Engineering. Originally from Gisborne, Mr McGuinness says he’s always enjoyed making “useful things.”

One of these “useful things” includes his PhD project – a system that automates the lifting and grading process of seedlings for forestry planting by using a robotic machine.

“Lifting and grading pine seedlings with a machine poses many challenges and it’s not something that’s been attempted before,” he said.

The idea for the yet-to-be-named lifter/grader came when tree stock company ArborGen needed help with the lifting and grading process of their seedlings.

“The main problem in forestry nursery processes is harvesting and grading seedlings before they’re planted out – which is where the lifter/grader can come in,” said Mr McGuinness.

The first prototype of the machine uses two cameras to analyse a seedling, particularly its stem thickness and root structure, to then determine its viability for selling to the forestry industry.

ArborGen also assisted with the development of another University of Waikato agri-engineering project – the dibbler, which Mr McGuinness developed with his supervisor Associate Professor Mike Duke.

ArborGen uses the dibbler to drill holes for planting pine cuttings in nursery beds. By drilling consistently deep, straight holes, the dibbler has helped improve treestock productivity by about 30%.

With a solution for planting seedlings now successfully implemented, Ben hopes the lifter/grader will work alongside the dibbler to improve forestry nursery processes.

The machine will likely be ready for market in a couple of years, and is being supported by Callaghan Innovation funding in partnership with ArborGen and the University of Waikato.