Lessons on automation: what can forestry learn from agriculture?

By Ronaldo Soares, Forest Manager at Hexagon's Agriculture division

20 October 2021

When we talk about automation in agriculture and forestry, what we find most are differences. The general context of the two productions is very distant, directly affecting the needs and technological implications of each of them. One of the most notable contrasts is that, while the agricultural crop is annual, involving a few months of the year per harvest, the forest is perennial. The factor, by itself, already creates a series of barrier that impact on technological investment. Harvests, for example, give a very fast return to producers, who could evaluate annually if the value applied in technology has brought results to their business, unlike in the area of forestry.

Another issue that distinguishes the two sectors is decision-making. In agriculture, they are simplified, considering that, when something doesn't work, it does not necessarily represent an irreversible loss. On the other hand, in forestry, the return on an investment is only seen after years. The choices are extremely complex, as they can compromise decades of work and usually involve large companies. Furthermore, the segment involves many bureaucracies and certifications, which are not always mandatory in agribusiness.

As if these challenges were not enough, there is also the fact that the forestry market is much smaller in several countries. In Brazil, for example, there are 65 million hectares in agricultural plantations, against only 8 million in forest farms. The number of people involved in forestry production is therefore much smaller — there are few companies, which generates a limited number of competitors.

All these aspects contribute to the absence of a strong culture of technology in forestry. Because of this, we now see the sector moving slowly towards automation, while the agricultural area already works with advanced innovations, in an increasingly digital reality. Given this scenario, what lessons can forestry learn from agriculture?

Adaptation for use of technologies
Due to all the characteristics already pointed out, agriculture receives technologies in a much more agile manner — a situation that shouldn't change, considering that it comes from a consolidated historical panorama. The best way to deal with this latency is to take the opportunity to verify what worked in the agricultural area and what can be replicated. Because they are different productions, it is clearly necessary to remain attentive to the necessary adaptations: identifying which positive results the technologies brought to the field and evaluating which ones would also be achieved in a production for forestry, creating adapted technologies that can be implemented in this sector based on such.

One of the first contemporary solutions that went through this process, migrating from the agricultural area to the forest, was the application of inputs at a variable rate. Although there are adaptations — such as the fact that the first uses the variable rate in plots and the second in a larger area, referring to the entire farm — in both cases more efficient results are achieved from an assertive practice, without waste or failures. The same lesson was then considered with the adhesion of spray controllers in forestry.

Another technology that came to the farm from agricultural influence was auto steering. It was possible to learn from the use in the fields that it would be able to bring benefits such as the execution of planting lines according to planning, the improvement of operational performance with the adjustment of manoeuvring times, and even facilitated control of the limits imposed by preservation areas. Thus, the use of auto steering in forestry has resulted in more productivity and sustainability.

The development of telemetry and the use of control rooms for real-time monitoring shows the importance of monitoring day-to-day operations — with monitoring of hours worked, identification of idle times and management of the quality of the operation, for example. However, these technological innovations are little applied in the forest situation. One lesson that forestry needs to learn in this sense is related to the use of data. Blame is often placed on the connection (which is indeed much more unreliable in forest areas). However, there are viable solutions that could be used from choosing a limited number of information to be transmitted via satellite; four or five factors instead of 100, for example. A better definition of what are the really important data for real-time decision making by the forestry companies could enable transmission methods that are economically unjustifiable, a fact that is well defined in the agroindustry, due to the short cultivation time and the need for immediate action.

Dialogue is needed
What we see in the forest context today are large/small companies of machinery, technologies, service providers and cellulose/wood companies without a synergy on the real problem of the evolution of forestry mechanisation. For more than 15 years we have seen large institutions projecting products for the forestry sector that have not yet got off the drawing board. I even believe that this is one of the main lessons that forestry still needs to learn from the agricultural area: how to develop a constructive dialogue.

It is a fact that this market is less commercially attractive and much more complex. However, if we want to evolve — and we are already aware of the technological benefits, which can be easily seen with applications in the agricultural area — it is necessary to take initiatives and finally seek joint solutions that transform the forestry sector.

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