It’s not quite R2D2, but the robot being developed by a pair of engineering students at the UBC Research Forest in Maple Ridge fulfills its purpose – it can plant trees.
Research coordinator Ionut Aron says it’s one of the best projects he has ever seen there.
“It’s very, very interesting. It combines forestry with electrical and mechanical engineering, and the latest technology,” he said.
“It’s a cool project. It could lead to something.”
The Tree Rover is the work of University of Victoria electrical engineering students Tyler Rhodes and Nick Birch.
Aron is supporting them with their project, and has shown them other mechanical planters developed there as far back as the 1960s.
B.C. engineer Jack Walters famously developed a prototype he called “The Forester,” which gained him some international renown, but the device “didn’t go anywhere,” said Aron.
The new robot can’t work on a cutblock in its present configuration, but the concept is promising.
“It definitely has potential,” Aron said.
Birch acknowledged that the entrepreneurial co-op project “is going to require a fair bit more development.”
The students put the Tree Rover together with out-of-pocket funds, so it doesn’t have their conceptual sci-fi mechanical spider legs that would enable it scramble around a cut block. Even tracks would do. But it has small wheels.
They have started a funding project online, and have come up with $3,500 so far, with a goal for $5,000 to invest in their robot.
Already they can load 10 trees into the mechanism, and it will plant them on any terrain it can navigate.
“It can plant multiple trees, in a row, in ideal conditions,” said Birch.
“If we can plant 10, we can scale that up and plant 100 or 1,000, depending the size of the vehicle.”
And that “proof of concept” is what makes their project exciting.
They will be back at UBC’s Malcolm Knapp Research Forest this spring doing more work to further develop the Tree Rover.
Both of the young men are avid outdoorsmen. Neither one has ever been a tree planter, but understand it to be demanding physical labour. And Birch said they are both idealistic about their future careers.
“We both have a shared interest in environmental technologies.”
Whatever ultimately happens with their tree planting robot, the young men will be better for the experience, said Aron. They will have learned about engineering, marketing and problem solving.
“For those two students, it’s the journey that matters. It’s the learning that happens during the process that matters most.”
He said the research forest is the perfect place for their work.
“It’s what we’re all about.”