Operator’s aid – How far have we come? 

Today’s forest machines are getting ever more advanced. A modern CTL harvester is loaded with as much computer power as a fighter aircraft, and forwarders are not far behind. What aid is there to get? I had a quick, nonscientific, look. And a retrospective.  

Operator’s aid

The first processor I operated did not have much computer power. None, actually. You pulled a lever to pull the tree through the processor, and a wheel under the tree connected to a pulse generator made the length visible in the cab (a kind of computer perhaps?). When the desired length was reached the lever was released and you cut the stem – with the same lever in my case, but sideward to the left. 

It was a multi-lever directly connected to the hydraulic valve that was mounted just under the cab’s rear window. Pull backward (toward yourself) and the tree was pulled through the processor. Pulling forward was to reverse the tree e.g., if thick branches made the delimbing hard. Pulling to the left you cut the stem and pulling to the right you cut off the top of the tree. All this was done with one lever, maneuvered by the right hand. To the left, a similar lever controlled the processor “table”, turning and tilting, etc. Between those two levers were six levers that controlled the crane. 

Who needed a gym back then? 

All levers were connected directly to valves. Even though they weren’t heavy to pull and push, it took at least some muscle to operate the machine. The next step in my case was a similar machine, a Rottne Blondin two-grip processor, but with two-lever crane controls. 

Photo: Lena Jonsson
Me – a long time ago – as a less (?) happy machine operator.

Furthermore, this machine was equipped with buttons mounted on the levers. Buttons that controlled the processor. So, now there were no direct connections between the cab and the hydraulic valves. The controls were electrical. On this machine, it was possible to set three “favorite” lengths that could be cut by just one push of a button. However, the accuracy in this wasn’t very good so I never used it. Instead of pulling a lever, you pushed a button until the desired length was reached, and then cut with another button. It was still up to me to decide the lengths of the logs. 

Life turns complicated – at the beginning

By this time, I had no experience with computers. When I entered my third processor, or harvester this time to be correct, it was a machine equipped with a computer-supported bucking system. This meant that the machine, not me, should decide the length of the logs. 

I have never in my life talked to or yelled at a machine as much as in the first weeks of operating this machine. If the machine had feelings, I’m sure I hurt it calling it stupid, idiot, and worse. The truth was that I was the idiot in this case. When I finally got a hang of it, I appreciated the support. 

After this, I operated several machines, with and without computer aid, harvesters, forwarders, chippers, and scarifyers. 

As much computer power as in a fighter aircraft

I’ve never been in a fighter aircraft, so I don’t know if it’s true. But some claim that a modern harvester has the same amount of computer power as such an aircraft. True or not, the difference compared to the early machines I operated is huge. Measuring, bucking, and volume calculation have become much more accurate. Programming, entering price lists into the machine computer, was a nightmare in my days but is now easy. And there is more help now, much more. Sometimes I wonder if a rookie operator of today can operate one of the old bastards that I operated in the 80s. On the other hand; Why should he/she? 

Crane tip control

Aid for operating the crane was early investigated. I recall hearing about a prototype in the early ’90s where the operator should point at a tree with a laser beam and the harvester crane would maneuver the harvester head to that tree. 

One-lever-controlled cranes were tested as well, based on several automatic functions. 

Another finesse was a system where the crane had a pre-programmed position, e.g., above the loading area of a forwarder, to which the crane automatically returned when the levers were released. This was tested already in the 80s. 

As far as I know, none of those functions were ever released on the market. In any case, they were no success. What soon became a success and quite common was damping systems for cranes. The first ones, as I recall, were purely electric or hydraulic. Later, as computers became common in forwarders, the computers controlled this function which is common today.

So is crane tip control. With crane tip control the operator can focus on where the grapple or harvester head is. If you wish to move the crane tip vertically, you do that with one lever. And if you wish to move it horizontally, you do that with the other lever. You don’t have to control the telescope and the outer boom manually. This is described in a previous article here

Today most harvesters and forwarders are equipped with both crane damping and crane tip control. 


GPS to keep track of the stands and property boundaries has been around for a while now. Harvesters can use GPS to mark where the timber piles are in the forest for the forwarder operator to find. The timber piles can be hard to find in the winter when the harvester lies weeks ahead of the forwarder and it has been snowing. 

Of course, the GPS is also used to find sites when moving the machines. 

Thinning aid

To decide what trees to fall and to leave in a thinning is a science. In countries like Sweden and Finland where thinning with harvesters has been common for decades, this shouldn’t be a problem. But the pressure on the operators to make the thinning profitable for the forest owner, sometimes makes them thin too hard. 

In markets where harvester hasn’t been used in thinning so much, there can be a problem in knowing how much to remove and how much to leave. 

To solve these kinds of problems, new solutions have popped up. One example is a system that Ponsse presented at the Metko show last year. A scanner that identifies the trees and their position around the harvester helps the operator make the correct decisions and get the thinning frequency right. 

Ponsse at the FinnMETKO
The Scorpion, here equipped with the new scanner for thinning assistance (just in front of the windscreen).

Another similar solution comes from the AI company Nordic Forestry Automation, NFA. The NFA system measures, positions, and classifies all trees around the machine automatically and in real-time. Data on each tree is collected and can be delivered to the forest owner as a basis for management decisions. The NFA system can be retrofitted to any type of harvester. 

The NFA interface shows the current situation around the harvester. The target is set to 20.0 and the current is density 20.7. The color indicates the density of the stand where red is too dense, blue is too sparse, and green is spot on. Illustration: Nordicforestryautomation.com

What’s next?

The eternal question. Remote-controlled forest machines are already on the market and new concepts are tested. An autonomous planting machine is underway. The question that comes to mind is if we will need people in the forest in the future. To be honest, autonomous, and remote-controlled machines are nothing new. It’s been around in other businesses for a long time. It’s us in the forest that are a bit slow. But do we want it? 

I recall a visit to Skogforsk, the Swedish Forestry Research Institute when I was a forester student in the early 90s. A very enthusiastic researcher talked about all the possibilities with satellites and remote viewing, and he said, “In the future, a forester doesn’t have to go to the forest at all.” The group was silent for a few seconds until I said, “But we have chosen this profession because we want to be in the forest.” It felt as if I had snapped a toy from a child. The researcher looked sad and said nothing. But he didn’t cry – I think. 

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