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Innovative solutions for increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impacts of future wood supply

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - OnTrack (Innovative solutions for increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impacts of future wood supply)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2018-08-31

The OnTrack project addressed the challenges of unpredictable soil trafficability and its consequences on the environment and on the forest contractor's ecomomic situation through a two-pronged approach. The first being the development of the OnTrack Forwarder, a tracked timber transporter concept that is as productive and durable as conventional forest machines, but equipped with high flotation tracks that allow the contractor to continue to generate income and service capital loans during wetter periods without compromising the forest soil.
The second part of the project was concerned with the development of the OnTrack Monitor, a tool for autonomously measuring soil disturbance ahead and behind a forest machine, and providing information on soil trafficability to the forest contractor. Maps generated from such a system can be used to better understand and predict soil load-bearing capacity and measures can be taken to reduce environmental impacts.

Milder and wetter winters are making forest soils more susceptible to damage from the machines commonly used in forests, where wheel rutting reduces water and gaseous exchange between the tree roots and their environments. Contractors working in forests have to take account of these issues in their day to day work. But they also need a solid foundation on which to base their business if they are to be around long enough to become experts understanding of the complexities of forest ecosystems.

The strategic objective of OnTrack was therefore to develop an intelligent and innovative machine concept that will reduce the susceptibility of the European wood based industries to fluctuations in supply (increasingly brought about by a milder and wetter climate) and to reduce and monitor the environmental impacts from timber extraction and thereby maintain or enhance the multi-functional role of forests in Europe and abroad.
In order to operationalize this strategic objective, five specific goals were set:

1. To combine the technologies of two leading original equipment manufactures (OEMs), Ponsse and Prinoth, to develop an innovative machine concept that will outperform current available technology on soft soil – the OnTrack Forwarder
2. To construct a prototype OnTrack Forwarder that is functional in terms of the design specifications
3. To develop the an autonomous sensor system that continuously monitor the impact on soil and forest floor form a forest machine – the OnTrack Monitor
4. To carry out international testing and demonstration of the OnTrack Forwarder mounted with the OnTrack Monitor
5. To develop business plans, promote, and demonstrate the developed OnTrack Forwarder and the OnTrack Monitor

The OnTrack project concept provides an important link between European forests, and the end users of forest products, a link designed to leave a light footprint in the forest, but have a heavy impact in improving the state-of-the-art around forest operations.
In the first half of the project, work focused firstly on designing a suitable and achievable machine concept that would meet the criteria behind the project idea. The two large Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), Finnish Ponsse Oyj and Italian Prinoth SpA, have supplied the machine chassis and tracked undercarriage, respectively. An important technical and economic criterion being that the construction of the machine should include combining off-the-shelf components to the extent possible. The resultant OnTrack Forwarder was designed in WP1 and constructed in WP2. In WP3, the machine was tested both on standardised beds / trails and in a real forest setting. Modification and re-engineering was necessary to a limited degree. WP4 started halfway through the project when the concept machine had been cleared for international testing. From Sweden, the machine worked in extremely wet and soft conditions in Latvia, then to Finland for deep snow (60cm) and freezing conditions (<20 celcius), then on to Germany during an unusually dry and hot summer which presented few challenges for timber extraction generally, and finally on to central Norway where it was tested on steep slopes.

The development of the Monitor followed a similar pattern of design and configuration in WP1 then construction and testing in WP2. This involved evaluating then combining selected commercially available sensors in a network covering each corner of the machine. The status ahead and behind the machine is scanned and compared, and displayed on a screen to the machine operator. At the same time, the results are transmitted and stored in a geo-referenced database online. Work package 2 included the testing of the accuracy and robustness of the Monitor, followed by a permanent installation on the OnTrack Forwarder. The temperature, wetness, and remoteness mentioned above during the field testing in participating countries provided extreme test material and a number of challenges for consistent operations, not all of which were fully resolved before the end of the project.
Enabling contractors to use their machines more consistently throughout the year will not only lead to a more stable wood supply, bringing economic benefits to the bio-based sectors, but also to a more stable income stream for these often economically marginal businesses. A higher degree of permanence amongst forest contractors has further benefits. Results from the structured field tests, and experience gained from the international commercial application of the machine, show that expectations have been met or exceeded. Field trials where similar (8-wheeled, 10-wheeled) Ponsse forwarders were tested - with and without tracks - alongside the OnTrack machine clearly showed the benefits of the OnTrack forwarder. Under identical conditions, the OnTrack machine performed 63% better than an identical wheeled forwarder fitted with steel tracks, after 9 passes, and 80% better than a wheeled forwarder without any tracks after only 3 passes. Thus the ambition of decreasing rutting by 40-70% was achieved and exceeded.

Despite some of the challenges in having it work continuously and robustly in different settings, the monitor received a considerable amount of attention, probably more so in central Europe than in Scandinavia, but sufficient to confirm that this is in fact a concept that will continue to be developed in various constellations; as a research tool for mapping machine trails for a range of potential end uses (soil / vegetation mapping/ soil trafficability modelling), as a training tool for new operators to get more quantitative feedback on their driving decisions, and give forest managers a tool for locating and alleviating site disturbance that might exceed certain thresholds.

Both the forwarder and monitor made an impact internationally. They clearly contributed to raising awareness of the issues around conducting forest operations in a way that is both beneficial to SME's and more acceptable to wider society. Multiple theme days, demonstrations and a presence at large trade-fairs including both INTERFORST in Germany and FinnMETKO in Finland have resulted in the Forwarder and Monitor, and especially the issues they address, to become commonly known amongst relevant actors.
OnTrack machine at landing (photo: Rolf Björheden, Skogforsk)
Project partner Johs Owren describes the machine attributes to regional TV crew (Silje Ludvigsen)
Ponsse's Kalle Einola for Discovery Channel Daily Planet (Bruce Talbot, NIBIO
OnTrack rubber tracks (photo Silje Ludvigsen, Mjøsen Skog)