Cat® forestry machines are being utilized via remote control for the first time in a project that ultimately may pave the way for wider application of the technology in the logging industry in order to increase operator safety.
Although remote operation has been used in Cat mining and construction equipment in the past, this is the first use of the technology with Cat forestry equipment. “Caterpillar is on the cutting edge of technology - technology to help Cat customers work more productively, efficiently, and safely in the most demanding applications and environments.” said Kolin Kirschenmann, Product Manager for Cat Forest Products.
Three Cat 521B track feller-bunchers worked for most of 2015, removing trees and other vegetation inside Fort Bragg, North Carolina. One of the machines was fitted with a disc saw head for felling large timber while the others were equipped with mulching heads for clearing smaller diameter trees and brush. The Cat machines were operated by remote control.
The work is being carried out on the site of a former gunnery range, an area that is littered with unexploded bombs and other military ordnance. Because of the risk associated with the unexploded ordnance, the machines were equipped with the innovative technology to allow workers to operate them from a safe location via remote control. “This is an incredibly important range...because we don’t have an aerial gunnery range currently,” said Wolf Amacker, chief of operations for Fort Bragg range control. When the entire project is completed -- the land cleared, ordnance removed and range facilities constructed -- Army aviators will be able to train onsite instead of traveling to other military installations. The range also will be used for training by military aviators from other bases. However, the job of clearing the land is a “daunting task,” said Amacker. That’s because the site had been used as a munitions range for decades. Removing the unexploded ordnance prior to clearing the land would be too dangerous and expensive, and equipping a land-clearing machine (that requires an operator) with armor provides only limited protection.
The solution: forestry equipment operated by remote control, eliminating the risk of ordnance exploding and causing injuries or fatalities of equipment operators. The Army selected Environmental Chemical Corporation (ECC) to be its contractor on the project. ECC, a global business that specializes in site remediation work for the military and government agencies, has done similar work at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia and Fort Polk in Louisiana.
To provide the equipment and the know-how for the project, ECC turned to another firm, Applied Research Associates (ARA), to supply the remote control system and work with the primary equipment vendor, a New England-based Cat dealer, Milton Cat. ARA reached out to Mike Mangin, leader of the track feller-buncher product team for Caterpillar Forest Products, to collaborate on a solution that would leverage the electric-over-hydraulic controls of the Cat track feller-buncher. ARA brought the latest version of its tele-operation system to the project, a kit that can be mounted on the machine in as quickly as 15-20 minutes, depending on the technician and experience.
The machine operators sit in a nearby office -- an air-conditioned trailer – and operate the equipment via laptop computer and operator controls. The remote operator has several video screens to observe the work -- multiple cameras are utilized and mounted on the machines with magnets to enable good visibility -- and controls the machine as if he was seated in the cab. The cameras can ‘zoom’ and also ‘pan’ or sweep over an area if additional visibility is needed. In addition the site is constantly monitored using aerial drones that provide a bird’s-eye view of the work zone in high definition video, allowing operators to be aware of obstacles beyond the vision of the onboard cameras.
The project requires clearing about 980 acres, most of which will be done with the remotely operated equipment. The work began in June 2015 and was completed in early 2016. “Success in this project will lead to more near-term opportunities at Army sites in Georgia and Louisiana as well as longer term opportunities globally,” said Kevin Thieneman, president of Caterpillar Forest Products.
ARA worked with Caterpillar Forest Products so the company’s remote control kit essentially “would plug in and play,” said Greg Hewitt, ARA Unmanned Systems Group Leader. The control kit plugs into a data port, and the machine can be operated remotely at a distance as far as two miles. ARA has utilized a similar system in other applications, mainly for the military, including other Cat equipment. The ECC workers had not operated feller-bunchers before but were accustomed to the machines after four hours of rudimentary training provided by ARA, according to Hewitt.
The project illustrates the importance of the collaboration of Cat dealers. Milton Cat was not the first equipment dealer that ARA approached, noted James Egan, a forest products sales representative for Milton Cat at the company's location in Hopkinton, Mass. “They got shot down by other people who were not willing to go down this road with them. The biggest thing, I think...was Milton Cat’s ability to look outside the box and look at new options,” he added.
Caterpillar Forest Products is advancing this technology to develop a purpose-built steep slope package. The benefit of the technology in such an application parallels the Fort Bragg application: it removes the operator from a hazardous environment and ensures his safety. Instead of working in the cab of a machine navigating steep terrain or manually felling timber with a chain saw, the logger would be located nearby and operate the machine remotely, completely safe.
Safety for operators is the paramount concern, Egan agreed. “Remote control definitely eliminates...danger.” Whether it is steep slope logging, demolishing buildings, removing toxic waste or unexploded ordnance, mining or other tasks, any application that can help eliminate hazards to an operator “is a good place for remote control,” observed Egan.
Aside from using remote controlled machines to mitigate hazardous work environments, the technology may have wider application for the forestry industry, which has difficulty recruiting, training, and retaining good equipment operators. “There are some people who think it might be a good idea to turn a logger into an office worker,” said Egan, the equipment operators potentially running a machine from home or an office environment up to 100 miles away.
Dan Dructor, executive vice president of the American Loggers Council, echoed that sentiment. He has heard talk about remote control forestry equipment, he indicated. “Most talk comes from contractors when they are having labor problems...wishing everything could be remote controlled.”