A sparse swarm of rovers for forest monitoring applications

Early prototype platforms for a forest environment. Aside from four-/six-wheel drive, and tracks, other locomotion concepts are also investigated for their suitability on forest ground

Forest Research [1] estimates the UK to have 3.19 million hectares of forests of which 1.40 million hectares are certified woodlands. The management, maintenance and conservation of these forest areas is an enormous operation and of substantial importance to the economy. For instance, the total value of UK wood product exports in 2018 was £1.8 billion, of which £1.6 billion was pulp and paper. In light of the recent human labour shortages, our foresters could be greatly assisted with a team of semi-autonomous robots to help them in monitoring our forests. This would help reduce the operational costs as well as circumvent some of the health hazards involved in forest operations while keeping the human “in the loop”. For instance, a team of robots could be tasked to collect at regular intervals images of tree trunks or samples of soil. The robots could as well be tasked to search for a specific plant species, or be moved to provide live video of a place of interest for an extended time.

Forest application scenario. A swarm of ten rovers (red markers) is tasked to monitor a large forest ground, traveling in a line formation from South East to North West through the forest (depicted by tree symbols and green background).

We are a group of robotics and AI researchers at the University of Southampton and the University of Sheffield, working towards developing a sparse swarm of small portable terrestrial robots [2] (see Figure A) that shall work together in forest monitoring missions. The envisioned individual robots of the team are autonomous and capable of traversing challenging off-road forest ground, with minimal human intervention. To minimize disruptions to the environment, and to cover large areas efficiently, the robots of the swarm are sparsely distributed across the area to be monitored, with inter-robot distances typically in the range of 100-1000 meters (see Figure B). The robots use low-bandwidth communication technology for coordination and do not require expensive communication infrastructure for operation.  

[1] Forestry Statistics, September 2019

[2] Danesh Tarapore, Roderich Gross, and Klaus-Peter Zauner. “Sparse robot swarms: Moving swarms to real world applications.” Frontiers in Robotics and AI (2020).