This is the rugged Canadian wilderness, where forestry trucks encounter some of the toughest conditions imaginable. And this, according to Robotic Research, is the perfect environment for the near-term automation of commercial trucking.
Gabe Sganga is head of commercial growth for RRAI. The company got its start in automation more than 20 years ago, before anyone in the commercial trucking sector was even thinking about automating heavy trucks. Robotic’s origins involved working with the U.S. Department of Defense to develop automated military vehicles. In recent years, the company realized its AutoDrive self-driving platform had commercial potential as well.
“The leadership team at the company looked at each other and said, ‘We’ve built an end-to-end technology stack that’s really focused on off-road. What are some commercial uses for this technology?’ And one of the greatest commercial use cases that we found was forestry, in areas where you have a lack of human resources or where they’re incredibly remote and it’s just hard to get people to do the jobs,” Sganga said.
While much of the focus on the automation of trucking has focused on the middle mile, RRAI felt the greatest potential for early success would be off-road.
Carving a path off-road
“From a regulatory perspective, that’s a pretty scary place to be for the next few years,” Sganga said of middle-mile applications. “We really want to focus on places where autonomy can make a difference in the immediate term.”
Meanwhile, FPInnovations, a Quebec-based research body focused on the forestry sector, was working with members to address challenges including the lack of professional log haulers. It connected with RRAI to embark on a project that would test autonomous truck platoons on off-highway logging routes to get logs from the forest to the mill safely and efficiently.
“Our mission is to help the industry be more competitive and to help the transformation of the industry as well,” Stephane Renou, president and CEO of FPInnovations, said of the work. “This project actually fulfilled both goals.”
Up to 40% of the cost of wood can be traced to transport costs, he pointed out. And forestry companies are struggling to find drivers to haul product in remote areas on rough roads. “It has become a bottleneck to be able to transport that biomass from the north to the south and to the mills efficiently.”
Renou said FPInnovations initially felt going straight to full autonomy was “a step too far.” But he added, “When we start looking at those concepts of platooning, basically getting another truck to follow the lead truck, then it becomes interesting.”
Perfect for platooning
The lead truck in a platoon is piloted by a human driver who establishes a breadcrumb trail, so to speak, for the subsequent trucks to follow, even where there are no paved roads. The following units (one in the initial tests, but more are possible) are equipped with lidar and other technologies allowing them to follow the lead truck without a human driver. FPInnovations and RRAI successfully concluded benchmark testing in July and continue to operate the AutoDrive-equipped Mack Granite platoons today.
But Robotic Research didn’t choose to start out in an off-road environment because it would be easy. “We think the harder challenge is operating in the really multidimensional, undefined spaces where there are no paved roads, and in some cases, there aren’t even roads,” Sganga said. “If you can do that well and operate in the Canadian wilderness, and you can operate in the Permian Basin of Texas where temperatures can approach 49 C in the summer, then you can do just about anything.”
The temperatures, of course, are quite different in Northern Quebec, and so too are the road conditions. But Sganga said the company must be able to handle all weather and road conditions. “If a vehicle that’s manually operated can handle the weather, then we have to be able to do the same,” Sganga said. “So far AutoDrive has done a fantastic job. From a perception and path planning perspective, we’re doing fantastic.”
Another challenge encountered in forestry that wouldn’t be an issue in paved cities is the roads themselves are constantly evolving. The forestry roads are recreated every couple of years, and can even experience changes day to day based on the traffic they encounter.