Robotic aim for forestry safety

By Mathew Dearnaley

Promising start in trials on steep slope felling

Ten forestry workers were killed last year and scores seriously injured. Photo / Natalie Slade
Ten forestry workers were killed last year and scores seriously injured. Photo / Natalie Slade

Machines which fell trees under remote control by operators standing at safe distances are being hailed as important new tools and a world first for reducing deaths and injuries in forests.

Promoters of a trial of four machines in steep Nelson forests say the results look promising for their goal of "no worker on the slope, no hand on the chainsaw".

The trial involved installing remote control units into a forest harvesting machine, the John Deere 909 feller buncher. More work is needed on video and audio monitoring equipment before the system is ready for commercial operations after next year in a joint venture of Future Forests Research Ltd, Wood Contracting Nelson and the Crown research institute Scion.

Associate Primary Industries Minister Jo Goodhew is welcoming progress on the trial, in which an operator managed to control the felling and bunching of several trees from the top of a steep slope.

"The use of remote control to operate machinery on steep land will essentially remove forestry workers from hazardous areas and prevent injuries and death -- a valuable and critical step forward for the industry," she said yesterday.

Although remote control is used in several industries, including mining and the military, Ms Goodhew believes its application to tree-felling is a world first.

"It will mean forestry workers will no longer need to use chainsaws to fell trees on steep slopes," she said.

But Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the trial was a long-running exercise and she questioned the timing of announcements about it after a Tokoroa forestry worker suffered a serious head injury when hit by a log near East Cape this week.

"Jo Goodhew and this government are always looking for a quick fix," she said.

"They have done nothing to keep the thousands of forestry workers any safer.

"They haven't changed a single regulation -- [forestry crews] would have been working in the dark today in the rain and wind with poor gear and lighting and they [the Government] don't want to regulate."

Ms Kelly said the Pike River mine, in which 29 workers were killed in 2010, was highly mechanised yet grossly under-regulated.

"You need regulation about working conditions, systems and the things that are killing workers now, and if they were doing that as well [as remote-controlled tree-felling], I'd be thrilled.

"The problem is the structure of the industry where labour is so cheap and machines are so expensive."

She acknowledged there had been only one forestry death so far this year, compared with 10 in 2013, and that serious injuries had almost halved to 46 but said that was because the forestry industry had been "under the pump" from a campaign by unions and grieving family members.

Robot fellers

• Machines that fell trees under remote control could help reduce deaths and injuries in forests.

• Trials have been held in steep Nelson forests.

• This involved installing remote control units into a forest harvesting machine.

• More work is needed before they can be used commercially.

- NZ Herald

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