Can the work environment be improved with IoT?

I had the honor of delivering a 15-minute keynote at the EU Tech Chambers IoT Alliance event Safety at work with IoT. I talked about how IoT can change work-life for people working with forwarders in the forestry industry, focusing on how IoT can improve the future working environment for not only these drivers but all lone workers driving machines in a constrained area. During my speech, I talked about how 5G-connected forest machines could be remote-controlled from a nearby shack.

Harvesting the forest with 5G

It sounds cool, the use-case from Skogforsk (Swedish forestry research institute) that I talked about in the KeyNote. Based on the latest technology a driver can drive a machine in the forest remotely using big screens, levers, and a comfortable seat. From this seat, the driver can control the machine via 5G, without sitting in the machine. With the help of cameras, both the machine and the crane can be controlled remotely. So, ok, we took the driver out of the machine, that is cool, but is it necessary? Yes, this all has a deeper meaning.

Harvesting the forest

First, let us look at how the forest is harvested. It all starts with a harvester, a machine that replaced the chainsaws. So the harvester logs the trees, and a forwarder is the next machine that is used for off-road transport of timber. The transport takes place through the terrain to a storage area accessible to, for example, a logging truck.

Surviving in the harvester

The forwarder is specially designed to cope with driving with a full load in difficult terrain. As a result, the forwarder operator is subjected to quite a lot of stress when driving the machine through the terrain. The operators are normally not able to work a whole work-life under these conditions, so to get a healthier work environment, the remote control is a good thing. It is important to get the operator out of the machine. And here is the first reason, no driver in the machine, means an instantly better work environment.

Dark and lonely

The machines run around the clock and working alone in the forest is not very attractive to some people. With remote control, the forest becomes a more attractive place to work, where several operators can be gathered in one place, and one operator can run several machines at once.

Saving cost

Another benefit is reduced costs, as it is much easier and cheaper to build a machine without a cab and regard for the human work environment. I have no figures, but I have heard that 30-40% of the cost can be saved.

Raising the status

But it is also about raising the status of the profession: for example, new technology has been introduced in logging trucks, which has increased the popularity of the profession. With the help of VR glasses, the driver can load the trailer from the cab instead of climbing on a crane in the dark and cold. This is not just a Swedish phenomenon, I have heard similar things from the construction companies in Asia, they have a hard time attracting young people, but computer-assisted machines make the work environment much more popular.

How is 5G used for the unmanned machines?

As you can imagine, the first technical hurdle to overcome is the transmission of data in a compliant manner. When talking about communication with vehicles, this means a high and consistent speed and a consistent and consistent time delay, and of course, that data can be transmitted securely.

5G is currently being rolled out, and public networks are not currently the ultimate platforms for the above scenario, but there are private 5G networks and dedicated spectrum that will allow testing and evaluation of the technology to begin to reach the ultimate goal of high-volume self-driving vehicles.

Controlling forestry machines via 5G

Skogforsk is the Swedish forestry research institute with the mission to provide knowledge, services, and products that contribute to profitable, sustainable Swedish forestry to ensure important societal goals. It was therefore natural to see if the forest industry could benefit from the new 5G technology. At its lab in Jälla outside Uppsala, they wanted to test it for real by connecting a remote-controlled forwarder via remote control over mobile networks.

Private 5G network in Swedish forests

Of course, building your own 5G network in the forest presents some challenges. The first challenge is to get the right downlink/uplink ratios in the data transmission, as 5G is perhaps primarily intended for fast downlink and Skogforsk needs the reverse.

The other challenges relate to coverage and delay. Skogforsk has been testing wireless in these challenging conditions and trying to find the limits. The problems in the terrain are that we have both trees and high mountains that prevent the signal from reaching unhindered in any situation. For Skogforsk’s solution to work, it requires a combination of high-resolution video, high speed, and low latency, which the tests show works best in line of sight.

The tests revealed things that we may already have heard, there is a clear correlation between antenna mast height and how far you can reach. It works quite far into the forest but we could certainly reach further with higher antenna placement. The forest itself wasn’t a problem, the mountains are.

The future of 5G in the forest

Together with Telenor, Skogforsk built a dedicated network that is limited to 20 MHz. The network is based on Industry connect from Ericsson which can be described as a “network in a box”. Such a network does not resemble the usual communication in Telenor’s macro network, where Telenor can more actively control and influence the traffic.

It is difficult to say when similar systems will be used in everyday operations, you can certainly expect a few years before it is in commercial operation, probably 3-5 years is a reasonable perspective.