Back to all articles

May/June 2023 | Muedanyi Ramantswana

Can exoskeletons be useful in performing silviculture activities?



Understanding exoskeletons
An exoskeleton is described as wearable device that is worn to enhance strength and performance to complete various types of work. Some of the main functions of exoskeletons include performing naturally difficult and labour-intensive tasks such as heavy lifting, bending and walking with loads. There are two main types of exoskeletons, passive and active. Passive variants do not have a power source with mainly strength and stability support whilst active exoskeletons use the drive systems such as motors, hydraulic systems, or pneumatic systems to enhance human strength or reduce the body’s energy consumption. Historically, development of exoskeletons was initiated in the mid-1900s and subsequently evolved as knowledge and technology expanded over time. Initial versions of exoskeletons were in the medical field, primarily for physical rehabilitation when people were affected by stroke or spinal injuries as well as military applications to augment a person’s strength and endurance. Over the past decade the use of this technology has been increased in various industries such as manufacturing, construction, logistics and agriculture. Some of the manufacturers of exoskeleton gear in different industries include EksobionicsSarcos, Suitx

Context of Silviculture operations
Silviculture activities can be manually intensive. Activities such as manual soil preparation, planting, pruning and weeding involve lifting, carrying, applying force to achieve the require productivity and work quality. For example, when performing an activity like manual planting a person needs to carry a bucket with seedlings, planting tool and a backpack with water/hydrogel. The use of exoskeletons to provide the back and shoulder support in carrying and performing the planting activity can be beneficial in these types of applications. Other activities such pruning with saws require extended periods of working with arms lifted, support provided by exoskeletons can help improve endurance, reduce discomfort and improve productivity. Even though comprehensive research needs to be done on the use of exoskeletons in performing silvicultural tasks, the technology has positive potential based on its benefits and functions which can be integrated to silvicultural tasks. As with any new technologies, the risks need to also be explored to ensure that both advantages and disadvantages are reliably assessed.

Benefits of using exoskeletons
• Reduction of work related musculoskeletal disorders
• Reduce muscle straining
    o fatigue when work when arms are raised e.g., pruning
    o Reduce lower back fatigue when in bent positions e.g., manual planting
    o Reduce thigh fatigue and strain when in squatted type positions e.g., auger pitting
• Increase productivity and overall efficiency.
• Improved work quality

Future of Exoskeletons
According to Robotics Tomorrow (2021), exoskeletons could be a $5.4 billion industry by 2028. The use of exoskeletons in enabling and enhancing the execution of forestry activities has good potential especially considering the increasing labour costs, availability of labour and health and safety risks associated with performing manually intensive work. This technology has good potential for not only silvicultural activities but also various other forestry activities (e.g., harvesting and nurseries). However, the cost of this technology is still quite high which is prohibitive when it comes to rapid adoption within the forestry space but over time the cost will drop as the cost of the technology and production decreases. The technology needs to be tested and researched in forestry applications so that the cost and benefits of using of exoskeletons can be quantified. This is most certainly a technology to that various forestry companies need to keep an eye on over the next few years.

Content References

Thumbnail image source