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Autonomous log truck testing in Canada to avoid driver shortages

For years now, the forest industry in Canada has voiced concerns about a growing labour shortage, as more and more workers reach retirement age and fewer young people enter the sector to take their place. This shortage is particularly acute when it comes to finding truck drivers for log hauling. Sources: Woodbusiness, Canadian Forest Industries, Timberbiz

To address this issue, multiple companies and organizations are testing the use of autonomous logging trucks. One such organization is the Nawiinginokiima Forest Management Corporation (NFMC), the Sustainable Forest License (SFL) holder for the Pic and White River Forest Management Units in Ontario.

The majority of the trees that are harvested are SPF, although some poplar wood is also harvested.

The NFMC, like other forestry companies across Canada, is worried about the lack of log truck drivers. The shortage has meant that more logs are left at the side of roads for much longer than the NFMC would like.

The company has tried recruiting but it says that the new generation is simply not interested.

Consequently, the NFMC began to look at other options.

They learned that other countries, such as Sweden and Finland, have been testing the use of autonomous trucks in the forest industry. So, last year, the company issued a request for proposal to find a Canadian company who would consider partnering with them to test the concept.

Provectus Robotics Solutions, based in Ottawa, responded to this request. The company will be providing the software and hardware technology for a pilot project testing the use of autonomous logging trucks.

The testing will take place in three stages.

In stage one and two, which will take place in the northern spring and summer of this year, the companies will test the technology in half-ton trucks in a convoy of three vehicles.

The lead vehicle, through hardware and software controls the second and third vehicles in the convoy. If that is successful, then stage three would include using three full log trucks going into the bush, being loaded with roundwood and hauled to one of the mills.

In each stage of the trial, there will be drivers in the second and third trucks as a safety precaution. However, the intent is for those drivers to be hands off and allow the lead vehicle to control their trucks.

All of the testing will be done in a closed environment on bush roads to ensure that the public is protected.

Provectus and the NFMC plan to finish the testing in 2021, with stage three scheduled to be completed in September or October. Excluding the cost of the transport trucks in stage three, the pilot project will cost Can$700,000, with Provectus and the NFMC sharing the costs.

If the pilot project proves successful, the impact will be substantial. It’s likely that truck drivers would need to be trained to use the technology, although it’s not yet known what that type of training would look like.

Implementing this type of technology will require capital investment from mills to buy the trucks, as well as the hardware and software that will go into those vehicles.

But, Notarbartolo hopes that in the future, the industry will use not only autonomous log trucks, but also autonomous harvesters, in an effoort to boost productivity and combat the labour shortage in this area as well.

In fact, the NFMC might turn its attention to testing autonomous harvesting once the current pilot project is finished.