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Northwestern forest to be test bed for semi-autonomous logging truck trials

Ottawa robotics system company ready to bring off-road, defence industry-proven technology to Marathon-area Crown management unit

A chronic truck driver shortage and a thriving sawmill industry in northwestern Ontario have steered a Crown forest management corporation toward finding a high-tech, off-road solution.

Nawiinginokiima Forest Management Corporation, managers of 1.5 million hectares of Crown forest on the north shore of Lake Superior, is offering the proving grounds this year for some ambitious and innovative trials using semi-autonomous trucks.

The Marathon-headquartered entity is partnering with Ottawa's Provectus Robotics Solutions to conduct a year-long pilot program to see if their off-the-shelf technology is adaptable to Canada's forest industry.

Nawiinginokiima holds the sustainable forest licences for the Pic and White River Forests and was, itself, created as a pilot project in 2012 as part of the government's overhaul of the forest tenure system. They supply wood fibre to area mills in Terrace Bay, White River, Hornepayne, Hearst and Calstock.

Despite the pandemic, Nawiinginokiima's general manager Carmelo Notarbartolo said, lumber prices are surging, area sawmills are doing well, and they're harvesting as much fibre as they can. But getting that volume to the mills in a timely fashion has been a big logistical challenge.

"Trucking is not an attractive career path for many young people," said Notarbartolo. "Our truck drivers are getting older and there's a shortage in our management area."

Notarbartolo remembered attending a presentation, staged by CRIBE (Centre of Research and Innovation in the Bio-economy) a year and half ago, of autonomous transport truck testing in Finland. He wondered if that could be a solution.

"There are countries that are testing it today, but Canada isn't one of them."

Nawiinginokiima issued a request for proposals through industry channels last summer, expressing their interest in hosting an autonomous vehicle pilot project.

They wanted a joint venture partner with an out-of-the-box solution for trucks to haul timber on logging roads, rather than someone who would build something from scratch.

"The response was next to nothing," said Notarbartolo. "There wasn't a company out there that could help us."

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CRIBE reached out and contacted Provectus. The growing 15-employee robotics company views it as great opportunity to make its first foray into forestry.

"We see an opportunity to make our name known in the industry for this type of technology," said Jason Scheib, Provectus' director of business development.

"Once we're successful with this project, it'll explode into other opportunities in forestry sectors around the world."

Established in 2010, Provectus provides robotic control software systems for global customers in the aerospace, agriculture, industry, mining, military and security sectors. The company is a subsidiary of defence industry supplier RheinMetall.

Like its parent company, much of Provectus' bread and butter work over the years has been defence applications, said Scheib, "which really lends itself to what we're doing with the logging industry.

"Most of what we've developed has been off-road autonomy. We do all kinds of autonomous navigation for everything from small 8-by-8 Argo-sized vehicles all the way up to tanks," said Scheib.

"We're very familiar in off-road and all-weather environments, which makes it very conducive to what we're doing here."

The company has developed its Advanced Robotic Intelligence System (ARIS), a versatile and 'turnkey' robotics program suitable for any ground vehicle, enabling it to perform a variety of different tasks and missions.

Of the $700,000 cost for the Nawiiginokiima project, Provectus is covering $400,000 in providing their engineering and expertise. Nawiinginokima is paying for the company's technology and the test vehicles.

The general thrust of their three-staged approach is to use a fully-manned and specially outfitted lead truck to send telemetry data back to the two following vehicles – duplicating the lead vehicle's direction, speed and braking – in following a prescribed route from a bush loading site to a mill operation.

They'll begin using half-ton trucks towing small trailers before graduating up to full-sized transport trucks pulling log trailers.

The first phase of actual road work starts within the next month or two, beginning at Provectus' Ottawa testing facility.

Scheib said the lead pickup is currently in the process of being outfitted with a drive-by-wire kit. They've also installed a system that takes care of the gear shifting and are adding sensors, such as LiDAR (light detection and ranging).

Provectus' facility is located in Ottawa's west end inside a former National Research Council experimental farm, now called Area X.O., where they have access to kilometres of controlled access roads where companies can test driver-less vehicles.

By summer, they'll migrate up to the logging roads in the Marathon area to put the vehicles through their paces.

"We have to make sure all the vehicles can cleanly communicate with each other," said Scheib.

"We'll be consistently and constantly sending information packets in between the vehicles so that they're tracking what each one is doing and making sure the telemetry is monitored properly."

Their system comes with obstacle detection and avoidance technology to either slow down or come to a full stop when an animal darts across a road, when vehicles have to navigate over a rough patch of road or come around a tight bend, and be able to maintain a communications link when a passenger vehicle manoeuvres in and around the convoy.

But Scheib expresses confidence their technology can adapt to the conditions.

His team expects challenges, such as adverse weather conditions, but all of their defence applications operate in environments with more extreme terrain than logging roads.

"We know what to expect," Scheib said. "We're prepared for that."

It helps that company president, Paul Rocco, is from Thunder Bay and is familiar with the roads and the area.

The only unknowns are operating their system when they scale up to full-sized truck carrying a heavy load.

"There's going to be some development time in doing that, but as far as navigation goes, obstacle detection and avoidance, we have that in the can already."

For safety purposes, all the vehicles will be manned in case something goes astray and all the testing will be done in a controlled setting on forestry roads. Liability issues prevent them from operating on a public highway, must less cross one.

No matter, Notarbartolo said, there are enough bush roads under their control that they can go directly from a harvest area to backdoor at a mill site in Terrace Bay, Hornepayne or White River without the trucks ever having to leave a forestry road.

Notarbartolo hopes these field trials will attract keen interest among industry watchers, as they intend to showcase this project and update its progress.

"That's the intent. It's a costly project to try but with potentially really good benefits."

The global embrace of this kind of technology, especially in mining, helps eliminate the dangerous and dirty jobs, not necessarily throw people out of work, said Scheib.

"It comes down to safety. Very rarely does it eliminate labour. It's almost always to take someone out of a dangerous situation. There's an incredible labour shortage all over world. When we get calls for our technology it's because they just can't find the people to do it.

"There seems to be a misconception that when you automate things like this that you're taking jobs away, but you're actually providing more jobs because, in this particular instance, if we can feed the mills faster with more product, then they can actually employ more people at the mill."