Robotics research strengthens relationships

An interdisciplinary project to develop workforce robots for primary industries has led to new ways to work with end-users for the involved scientists.

In 2017 the project’s first phase was funded for two years by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s National Science Challenge Science for Technological Innovations (SfTI) project.

This project included scientists from Lincoln Agritech, Scion and the universities of Auckland, Canterbury, and Otago, as well as Massey University and Victoria University of Wellington.

With industry representatives, the researchers proposed developing components for self-learning robots to work in harsh outdoor environments such as agriculture and forestry. Such robots had to be able to detect and operate safely around human workers and navigate rough terrain.

Forestry focus

In 2019 the project won a three-year extension, focused on forestry, and working with the Lake Taupō Forest Trust.

This national Robotic Spearhead was a science-led project with industry guidance. Individual teams worked on one aspect each before integrating their results into a full-fledged outdoor robot, says Armin Werner, Lincoln Agritech’s Precision Agriculture Group Manager and the project’s Principal Investigator.

The researchers were developing a robot they thought would be a self-guided platform to carry seedlings to the workers planting them. Then, with additional SfTI support, the research approach turned on its head – from being science-led to industry-led.

“As scientists, we discuss our ideas and use academic arguments about why they will work, for example, for the forestry sector,” says Armin. “But that strategy didn’t work for achieving the SfTI goal of creating measurable impact with the funding.”

“We discussed our options with the forest industry,” says Jaco Fourie, Lincoln Agritech’s Machine Vision Senior Scientist and Team Leader. “We said, ‘You’ve seen what technology we’ve developed and you’ve seen the ideas for it. We’re not going to tell you what we think the next step is – what do you want it to do to make it useful for you?’

“The resulting self-guiding platform for clearing forest paths from dense understorey growth was an even better fit for what we were developing,” says Jaco.

“We are now preparing the required modifications of our robot platform and plan to build a commercially viable product.”

Industry influence

Lake Taupō Forestry Trust and Lake Rotoaira Forest Trust Manager Geoff Thorp says working with the project has been an opportunity to influence future research.

“We see some of the techniques they’re starting to develop as things that we know we’ll be able to use. It’s been educational to see just how complex some challenges the researchers face regarding automation and robotics.”

In 2022, the follow-up project was funded for 18 months to build and commercialise the manoeuvring control system for a robot that will maintain forest tracks by shredding the understorey. This control system could later be modified for other outdoor robots.