Research Headlines - A low-impact transporter lightens the load on forest soils

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Studies show there is room to increase the benefits society derives from Europe’s forests – such as recreational activities, construction materials and energy sources – without compromising their production capacity. This is based on the assumption that harvesting activities are sustainable and do not harm the forest’s regenerative capacity. However, milder and wetter winters are making forest soils more susceptible to damage from the machines commonly used in forests, where wheel rutting reduces air and water flow to plant roots.

Contractors working in forests must take account of this, but need a solid foundation on which to base their business. The same applies to firms making products from forest resources, for whom an inconsistent supply of materials between seasons is a challenge.

The EU-funded OnTrack project addresses these challenges through a two-pronged approach. The first was the development of the OnTrack Forwarder, a tracked timber transporter concept that is as productive and durable as conventional machines. But compared with normal machines it is a gentle giant. Even when carrying a 14-tonne load, it exerts less pressure on the soil than a human footprint. This reduces wheel rutting and soil disturbance by as much as 70 %.

The project also developed the OnTrack Monitor, a tool for measuring soil disturbance. It is fitted to machines and compares the condition of the soil ahead and behind the machine. Differences are signalled to the operator and mapped. The maps can be used to predict soil load-bearing capacity and measures can be taken to reduce environmental impacts.

“The most important socio-economic benefits lie in the potential for contractors to work more consistently throughout the year while meeting stringent environmental regulations,” says project coordinator Rasmus Astrup of the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research. “Smaller contractors, who are the majority in this industry, have to service large capital investments and are dependent on being able to use their investments productively for as much of the year as possible.”

More gentle machinery

The transporter was created by fitting the chassis of a conventional timber forwarder onto an undercarriage with wide rubber tracks. The result will allow timber companies to work while reducing their impact on forestry soils. Also, rubber tracks make less of an impact on on tree roots than the steel tracks often used on standard forwarders.

“The main innovation lies in combining off-the-shelf components from two leading manufacturers into a novel machine with exceptional environmental performance,” explains Astrup. “While this might sound simple, it has come about through intensive cooperation between these manufacturers and their engineering departments.”

The development of the monitor involved combining available commercial sensors in a network covering each corner of the machine. The status ahead and behind the machine is compared and displayed to the machine operator, and the results stored in a geo-referenced database. The monitor can also transmit soil disturbance data to the forest manager live using 3G technology.

Consistent wood supply

Enabling contractors to use their machines more consistently will lead to a more stable wood supply, bringing economic benefits to the bio-based sectors. The monitor will allow forest contractors to improve practices and alleviate ruts that exceed certain thresholds.

Both the forwarder and monitor raise awareness of the need to conduct forest operations in a way that respects the environment if an increased use of wood from European forests use is to be socially accepted. Ambitions are to bring both the OnTrack Forwarder and OnTrack Monitor to a point where they are proven to work in their final form and under expected conditions by the end of the project in August 2018.

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This project has received funding from the Bio-Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 745828