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Tree traversing robot to cut down hazardous work

Research at the University of Canterbury could help cut the unacceptably high number of deaths and injuries in New Zealand’s forestry industry. Sources: 3News, Radio New Zealand

Engineering students are developing a robot that does some of the dangerous work, and it has already won them a major engineering prize – the Professional Engineers Institute’s top prize for a student project.

The students who designed the tree-traversing robot were Scott Paulin, Sean Bayley, Thomas Gilbert and George Wareing. Their supervisor was Dr Stefanie Gutschmidt from UC and the industry mentor was Dr Richard Parker of the Crown Research Institute Scion.

Their forestry robot clings to a tree trunk and moves around the forest, rather like a chimpanzee swinging through branches.

Dr Gutschmidt said it lets workers stay out of harm’s way.

“The current industry is very hazardous with the big machinery and the people being amongst the trees, so they came up with the idea the robot could do the job and remotely control the robot,” she said.

“We’ve developed a whole new type of technology which, if it all works in the fullsize version, will be a new way of making forestry a whole lot safer.”

The prototype doesn’t have a cutter, that’ll come next, but the robot is specially designed to manoeuvre in the steep and difficult terrain where many of New Zealand’s forestry fatalities occur.

Last year 10 forestry workers died, prompting the establishment of an industrywide review.

Crown research institute Scion is pushing for improvements, and senior scientist Dr Richard Parker said the team is breaking new ground.

Dr Parker is a bit of a robot fiend – he also helped push the development of the under-house robot used successfully in Canterbury to check on earthquake damage.

University of Canterbury PhD student Chris Meaclem said the forestry prototype is controlled from a safe distance.

“You simply just sit down with the joystick,” he says. “You just have to learn what direction is what. You push [which] way it moves and you’re good to go,” he said.