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March/April 2024 | Henny Zitha and Muedanyi Ramantswana

Integrating auto-steer technology to vehicles used in silviculture



In the realm of forestry, the adoption of advanced technology has significantly transformed silviculture operations. One such innovation is the integration of auto steer systems into forestry equipment. These systems, leveraging GPS technology, several advantages. Understanding the impact of this technology on productivity and business efficiency is crucial for maximizing its potential in silviculture practices. Tractors are by far the most versatile vehicle used in both forestry and agriculture. They can be used with implements to clear residues, to prepare soil and to conduct various tending activities (e.g., weeding). Auto steer technology is increasingly being used in tractors that are used in forestry conditions.

How auto steer systems work?
Auto steering is possible on tractors through the assistance of a GPS which guides the tractors along a pre-determined path. The GPS receiver on the tractor communicates with the orbiting satellite around the earth to determine precise location. To enhance GPS accuracy a real time kinematic (RTK) correction system is used. It receives corrections from a base station or network which then refines the GPS signal to provide centimetre-level accuracy. The GPS data received is processed by the navigation controller and then calculates the tractor’s position relative to the desired path. Based on this position calculated, the auto steer system then sends commands to the tractor's position steering system to adjust the direction of travel. To monitor the tractor’s progress, the operator uses a guidance display or interface. Moreover, any necessary adjustments to the auto steer system setting can be made through the guidance display or interface. Predefined paths generated through mapping software can be used for path planning alternatively the operator can input or upload desired paths into the auto steer system before the operation. Factors such as terrain variation or obstacles may cause deviation of the tractor while transversing the site but through automatic correlation the system adjusts the steering to maintain alignment and throughout the operation. The auto steer system continuously compares the tractor’s actual position with the desired path.

Benefits of Auto Steer systems
• Auto steer systems ensure precise navigation of forestry equipment, resulting in accurate subsoiling, planting, and fertilizing. This precision reduces the risk of errors and promotes uniformity in forest management practices.
• Auto steer systems optimize the use of resources such as time, fuel, and labour thus reducing costs while increasing productivity.
• Automated steering reduces operator fatigue which can lead to a decrease in accidents and injuries in forestry operations.
• With precise navigation, auto steer systems can minimize soil compaction and damage to surrounding vegetation, promoting healthier forest ecosystems.

How Auto Steer Systems Improve Silviculture Operations:
• Ensuring precise tree planting and spacing, leading to good timber quality
• Optimizing spacing between trees through guiding equipment along designated paths
• Enabling better monitoring and management of forest resources, resulting in enhanced productivity and sustainability

Auto steer technology can modernise conventional machines used in silviculture operations. Furthermore, they offer unique precision, efficiency, and safety improvements. By embracing this technology, forestry professionals can elevate their practices, leading to more sustainable and resilient forest ecosystems for future generations. John Deere, AutoTrac and Hexagon are some of the companies provide auto steer technologies.