No Tree Is Safe From This Chainsaw-Wielding Robot

This robot is an excellent reason why you should never, ever pretend to be a tree

2 min read
No Tree Is Safe From This Chainsaw-Wielding Robot

Of all the things you should not give robots—lasersknives, swords—one of the worst is possibly chainsaws. I mean, chainsaws are noisy in a terrifying sort of way and awfully messy. They're especially dangerous if you're a tree, in that if you're a tree, there is a significantly increased likelihood that this pruning robot will climb up you and violently lop off as many of your limbs as it can reach.

The reason why a pruning robot is actually a really good and important idea is that climbing trees and then holding on with one hand (or no hands) while sawing big heavy bits of them off is rather incredibly dangerous, with injury rates about 10 times that of working in a factory. This teleoperated robot means that you can stand very, very far away while the pruning gets done, and the 'bot seems to do quite a good job, able to climb up and down trees with no trouble while cutting branches off in a spiral motion.

At 13 kilograms, the robot can drive straight up trees between 6 and 25 centimeters (2.3-9.8 in) in diameter at 0.25 m/s, while tackling branches with a diameter of less than 5 cm. It can automatically adapt to a variety of tree morphologies (that's a thing, right?), and is relatively energy efficient (for whatever that's worth) since it can support itself passively on the tree by using its own weight to securely grip the trunk.

Most of the testing of this robot has so far been in an "experimental forest," where the trees seem to be all about as straight and perfect as a sprouting telephone pole. Continuing research will involve making the robot a bit more robust towards different sorts of trees and foliage, and teaching it the difference between trees that it should try to prune and tall humans that it shouldn't. 

"A Pruning Robot With a Power-Saving Chainsaw Drive," by Yasuhiko Ishigure, Katsuyuki Hirai, and Haruhisa Kawasaki from Marutomi Seiko Co. and the University of Gifu, in Japan, was presented at the 2013 IEEE International Conference on Mechatronics and Automation.

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An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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