Semi-automated harvesters and driverless shuttles – here are the industry’s suggestions for the forest machines of the future

What do we expect from the machine systems in use in, say, ten years’ time? Will they be fully automated or remote-controlled, run on hydrogen or electricity? In a Mistra Digital Forest project, researchers have gathered stakeholders for a workshop on future machine systems in order to survey their thoughts. Then, the participants’ proposals will be simulated and analysed in order to pinpoint the most interesting ones to develop further.

Rikard Lundkvist. Photo: Elin Fries.

– Our primary focus has been to look about ten years into the future and ask those who are actually affected, what they think a machine system should be able to do by then. We were looking for proposals that could be tested operationally in ten years’ time, but not necessarily be in serial production because the steps to that point take many years, says Rikard Lundqvist, researcher at Skogforsk and project manager.

The workshop was attended by representatives from Södra, Billerud, Stora Enso, Sveaskog, SCA, Holmen and SLU and Skogforsk, who are jointly managing the Mistra Digital Forest project. The participants were asked to consider what it was most important to improve in the current machine system, and which external factors have the greatest impact on development. Prior to the workshop, they were also asked to make anonymous suggestions that everyone then voted on.

All-electric vehicles are missing from the top ranking

Ola Lindroos. Photo: Olof Bergvall.

The researchers found that many proposals were similar to current machine systems, but they were more refined. The top ranked items included semi-automated harvesters, loading driverless and/or remote-controlled shuttles and fully autonomous machine systems, all powered by hydrogen or by hybrid solutions. To the researchers’ surprise, there was no fully electric vehicle in the top ranking, perhaps explained by the lack of adequate charging infrastructure.

– We are currently recruiting a PhD student who will investigate alternatives for organising the energy supply for the electric forest machines of the future. We want to figure out how and in what form we can best transport the energy that will ultimately be used as electricity in the forest, says Ola Lindroos, professor at the Department of Forest Biomaterials and Technology at SLU.

The proposals are analysed – aiming to explore the potential of different machine systems

Of the areas of improvement that were identified, lower carbon dioxide emissions were the most important, followed by increased driver safety. The main challenges included a lower tolerance for ground damage, higher demands for decarbonisation, lack of fuel availability and difficulties in recruiting staff. In general, participants believed that while conditions will become more difficult in the future, greater technological opportunities in the form of automation and remote control, as well as new energy sources, can accelerate this development.

The results of the workshop will be summarised in a report and published in a scientific paper in the course of 2024.

– The project is now moving on to the next stage, where we will simulate and analyse all the proposals received, in order to broaden our knowledge of different machine systems and their potential. We need to find out where we should be focusing, and to support this development work we have a newly established reference group, including representatives from companies in the forest sector. Hopefully this will lead to us having new, relevant machine systems in place in ten years’ time, says Rikard Lundqvist.