These Robot Foresters are Planting Trees for a Better World

Robots could be a game changer for forest regeneration.

Apr 24, 2021
These Robot Foresters are Planting Trees for a Better World | Robots could be a game changer for forest regeneration.

Once the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, robots and robotic technology are now integrated into many aspects of daily life, ranging from manufacturing to medicine and everything in between. While humanity is still far from having robot servants at home, robots are commonly used on assembly lines in factories, and even for ultra precise movements during surgeries.

Embracing the robotics revolution, one Estonian company recently decided to repurpose its proprietary technology for a cause that’s beneficial for the Earth. Robot manufacturer Milrem, which previously produced autonomous tanks, partnered with the University of Tartu to develop robot foresters that can plant and care for trees.

The decision to create autonomous foresters came after Milrem realized that its technology, which had been developed for military use, could be useful in other areas.

“We started looking into what else we could do with these unmanned robots,” Mart Noorma,  Science and Development Director at Milrem, told Research Estonia. “Together with our partners at universities and public offices, we realized that we could be helpful in automating many industries.”

The robots, which resemble mini tanks, operate in pairs. One robot works as a planter, putting down as many as 380 seedlings covering 1 hectare (2.5 acres) in as little as five to six hours. During the planting stage, the robot records the exact location of each sapling. The other robot follows its path, trimming vegetation and cutting brush, so that the newly planted trees can thrive.

To navigate their surroundings, the robots utilize LiDAR and GPS systems. LiDar uses laser technology to create a three-dimensional geometric map of the robots’ environment. Interesting Engineering reported that the robots also use high resolution camera systems to fill in the gaps around obstacles and ensure the maps’ accuracy.

The efficiency and speed of these tree-planting robots, give them the potential to help reverse deforestation, a critical issue impacting the planet. “99 percent of new trees are planted manually...this is one reason why not enough trees are planted,”  Noorma said during a live-streamed conversation about Milrem’s technology. “We need more trees…[but] there has not been a suitable mobility platform that could deliver the planting tools.”

“We believe [the robots] will be a real game changer for forest regeneration,” he said. The robots can carry out their tasks without the use of large tractors, Noorma explained, making them significantly more energy efficient than traditional forestry. Additionally, because they follow a preprogrammed route that guides them to the exact areas that need attention, “our robots [have] a lower environmental footprint,” he added.

According to the World Economic Forum, 1 trillion trees should be planted by 2030 to help slow climate change and restore forests lost to logging and industrialization. The WEF has endorsed Milgrem’s forester robots as an important step towards meeting that goal, helping the company secure a $2.4 million grant from the European Union to continue the project.

But beyond providing a boost to the planet’s health, the foresters also serve as a remarkable demonstration of rapidly developing mobile robotics technology. Andrew Davidson, an engineering professor at Imperial College London, told the New Scientist that the robot foresters provide a real-world example of the endless possibilities of robotics.

“This is one of many interesting applications... which show that mobile robotics technology is maturing fast and enabling robots to tackle new types of tasks in difficult environments,” he said.

Although the robots are still in the late testing stages, it’s clear that they have the potential to make a significant positive impact on the planet. By exploring how their technology could be used for sustainability efforts, Milrem has proven that the human imagination is truly the limit for robots. If more tech companies looked into green uses for their technology, both the planet and mankind would benefit.

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Fascinated by storytelling since childhood, Lauren is passionate about the written word. She’s a freelance writer who has covered everything from the latest developments in tech to geopolitics. When she’s not writing, Lauren is interested in genealogical research and family folklore.