Precision planting the first step to autonomous, integrated operations

October 19, 2018

By Jaap Steenkamp

In the past, foresters were typically rough, bearded, axe-wielding men. But today they need to be versatile, well educated and technology-orientated! Everything is becoming computerized, guided, recognized, digitized and controlled, thus modern and automated; all accomplished through electronics! Sensors and signals for everything! New concepts are emerging - tethering (cable assist), auto-guided, autonomous, precision, no-till/pit-less etc.

Digital transformation is causing the world to move away from an economy of products and services to one based on experiences and outcomes. Companies need to digitally transform in order to survive and thrive in this new economy to drive significantly higher levels of profit, productivity, and performance.

In an effort to make operations more productive and efficient, growers are implementing ‘precision forestry’ technologies in order to gather site-specific information, thereby enabling a precise way of informing farming decisions. Technology is used to gather information by observation and measurement. This allows growers to know how much and when to apply inputs such as hydra gel, water, fertilizer and weedicide. It enables them to respond to inter- and intra-field variability in crops, reducing costs by limiting misapplication of these inputs, and increasing yields through more accurate and consistent application of inputs.

For any machine or equipment to be guided or to be autonomous, man will have to make it autonomous! Systems will have to be synchronized for the best integrated results. The whole forestry cycle, from establishment to harvesting should form part of an integrated, well managed process.

Autonomous harvesting is currently the biggest buzz word in forestry circles. Yes, it is perfectly possible. Again you need a computer, you need guidance systems and you will need recognition technology that will be integrated in a forestry machine. That being said, there is also a place for stand-alone electronic units with a variety of functions.

The current thinking is biased on recognition technology, hence scanning the environment and locating the object of interest. This scenario is a valid scenario when looking at harvesting only. The technology must recognize the tree, “evaluate” the situation or conditions and then orientate the harvesting head and do the harvesting.

Throughout the world, forestry is practiced in silos. The most prominent silos are silviculture, harvesting and protection. Harvesting will always follow silviculture and the cycle is repetitive. When vertical integration is practiced between silviculture and harvesting, efficiencies improve! Believe it or not, there are still harvesting orientated people who know very little or nothing about silviculture and vice versa.

With a vision firmly on autonomous equipment, the key is recognizing where the object of interest is and what the object looks like. Is recognition technology the only way to establish these facts, or are there other ways? The vertical integration opportunity of recognition technology in forestry is very limited! You cannot scan or recognize where you need to plant a tree and therefore a different approach is required, an approach that can integrate the activities of planting with harvesting.

GPS systems
Recognizing that commercially available construction and agricultural GPS systems do not cater for the specific challenges found in forestry, NQF - with assistance from TIA (Technology Innovation Agency) - decided to embark on the development of dedicated GPS software to improve stocking accuracy and straight lines, record the profile of the land (high quality detailed mapping) and recording the XYZ (longitude, latitude and height above sea level) position of each tree.

The principle was simple, your machine needs to know where to plant (plan) then it needs to record the actual spot of planting in X, Y, Z format to recognize location and slope when planting. This information will be available for each and every future activity in that compartment. For the next rotation, the location of each stump will also be known and can hence be avoided!
The planted trees are not going to change position during the rotation period. The only recognition technology required at a later stage (for harvesting) is to confirm the presence of the tree (and maybe the basal diameter of the tree).

Once we have the information (XYZ location of every tree and it is written to the log), autonomous operations becomes possible for subsequent operations like secondary irrigation and even fertilization.

NQF developed the software primarily for their own silviculture equipment, but realized the potential to integrate the system with other equipment. If manufacturers of harvesting equipment want to use the information (the location of every tree) for harvesting purposes, they will need to have an RTX antenna and signal and compatibility with the NQF GPS system.

The NQF software should make autonomous harvesting a breeze from a location and safety perspective and it should be much cheaper than any other technology to locate trees for autonomous harvesting.

Why embrace the technology
Why should growers and contractors adopt and embrace the technology?

In the first instance, once every tree is pin dropped at planting, every subsequent operation can be automated and accurately executed.

An accuracy of up to 40mm is possible and trees will be established according to a pre decided grid orientation.
The number of stems per hectare is a critical investment criterion. The system prevents over or under stocking and hence 100% accuracy in terms of stocking. No more marking for pitting, no more supervision required, no more sampling for stocking, no more manual compartment reports.

In many instances the requirement for stocking is between 95% and 98%. To achieve this level of accuracy with manual systems decreases productivity.

Special management zones can be demarcated accurately and hence effective compartment area can be established with great accuracy. The real number of trees planted in the compartment will be known.

It is even possible to equip planting equipment with weather monitoring equipment to record climatic conditions on a continuous basis and vary (for example) the quantity of water suspended per planting.

The vision of NQF with the development of the GPS Forestry software is to integrate the whole chain from establishment to harvesting and provide for easy autonomous operations in a cost effective manner.

*First published in SA Forestry magazine, September 2018

If you enjoyed this article, check out Drones vs pests and diseases.

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