Just a few days ago I was talking about a war robot of Milrem, asking me about possible civil applications of the technology.
I was satisfied: the same company features a pair of forest robots that plant trees instead of cutting them down.
Robotic foresters, vehicles without a human driver, have different tasks: one plants trees and flowers, the other is a brushcutter. Both are the size of a small car and weigh around a ton.
Heavy as a feather
The planter carries more than 300 seedlings at a time and will be able to plant one hectare of new forest in 5-6 hours, for a total of 1000-3500 seedlings depending on the species. It also records the exact location of each tree.
The other of the two forestry robots, the brush cutter, equipped with a cutting tool and precision sensors, has the task of removing the vegetation around the seedlings.
Gert Hankewitz area of Milrem robotics states that forest robot tracks exert less pressure on the ground than human feet and do not damage the soil.
Eyes that you think
Such precise orientation is challenging and requires a combination of laser-based LIDAR sensors, cameras and GPS.
LIDAR provides a 3D geometric representation of the environment, but provides relatively little data. High-resolution camera images fill in the gaps. "All data is merged in real time, complementing each other and making it possible for forest robots to autonomously drive in a forest," says Hankewitz.
The cameras are also used for image recognition and provide a visual display for the operator if he needs to steer the robot remotely.
Forest robots, however, will be largely autonomous
In some ways autonomous driving in chaotic and unstructured environments is more difficult. And you can imagine how good it is, since even on normal roads you still don't see cars driving alone.
Forest robot developers are addressing this problem with machine learning, using simulations for conditions that may not occur frequently in real life.
This means that vehicles should be able to "tell" if they can cross a slope, ditch or stream without getting stuck.
Forestry robots will perform the task almost autonomously. The human operator, who will be able to supervise four or five robotic foresters simultaneously, will intervene only when necessary.Gert Hankewitz, Milrem Robotics
The hope is that forestry robots will cost less than manual forest replanting or mechanized approaches with excavators.
Many countries around the world are trying to plant a huge number of trees to help fight climate change.
It is one of many exciting emerging applications that demonstrate that mobile robotics technology is maturing rapidly and enables robots to tackle new types of tasks in challenging environments.