Japan's forestry industry tests robots

Friday 29 Jul 2022

The yellow, four-legged robot walks up a grass slope, then marches through a forest full of twigs. It even mounts a stump and then climbs down unassisted.

It’s part of a trial run by Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (FFPRI) and SoftBank Corp., using robots produced by Boston Dynamics. The goal: find a solution to Japan’s chronic labour shortage in the forestry industry. If successful, it could increase reforestation in the country and help Japan achieve its carbon neutrality goals.

Forestry work is mostly manual and today’s workers are aging and declining in number, so researchers are hoping that the robots will be able to help humans monitor and maintain Japan’s forests.

A group of Japanese researchers launched a field test last month to incorporate these electric-powered quadrupeds to improve the safety and operational efficiency of forestry work. The robots use geospatial data, Wi-Fi and other communication technologies to cover vast areas of land independently.

In recent years, the government has been backing “smart forestry” initiatives, which use robots and other tech to improve communication, reforestation efforts and disaster recovery. With the rise in demand for timber, around half of Japan’s artificial forests are ready to be logged. But reforestation plans have been hampered thanks to large numbers of workers retiring or seeking other jobs. Logging’s low profit margin doesn’t help matters.

As a result, the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by forests has been declining, which raises the risk of natural disasters as forests have yet to be replenished, researchers said.

The team plans to verify whether electric robots are capable of patrolling, monitoring and carrying cargo through forested areas. This starts by confirming what kind of surfaces they can walk over.

Researchers will use Wi-Fi and satellite communications so that the robots, which are installed with high-precision, internet-linked positioning technology that enables self-guided walking, can operate in the woods where there is no reception.

The trial runs will be conducted twice before the end of this year: one in Shimokawa, Hokkaido, and the other in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture. The researchers will use Spot, an agile mobile robot design developed by Boston Dynamics, an American firm 20% owned by SoftBank Group that is known for robots able to navigate terrain with unprecedented agility.

Source: japantimes

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