Two University of Victoria students design tree-planting robot

Two University of Victoria students have invented a tree-planting robot they hope will help restore B.C. forests following this season’s wildfires.

Nick Birch, 29, and Tyler Rhodes, 22, spent the past several months designing the TreeRover.

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“There is going to be a big replenishing effort at some stage down the road and it would be neat if the TreeRover could be scaled up then,” said Birch.

Birch and Rhodes, both third-year electrical engineering students, designed the TreeRover as part of an unpaid, self-directed entrepreneurial co-op project.

“It’s four-wheeled, electric-powered and about the size of a go-cart. It’s battery operated and there’s a planting mechanism that sits atop the wheeled platform,” Birch said.

The TreeRover uses compressed air in a pneumatic system to plant the seedlings.

In its current form, it can hold 10 seedlings at a time.

“It uses a hollow spike that punches into the earth and the nose of the spike opens a cavity in the earth that allows the seedling to drop down.

“A secondary piston packs in the dirt around the seedling,” Birch said.

Although it’s a “very early prototype,” Birch said it works well.

The pair have practised on a patch of land at the Cowichan Lake Research Station, using seedlings donated by Western Forest Products.

In the spring, they’re to plant a test-batch at one of the University of British Columbia’s research forests.

“We’re heading over … to meet the research manager and we’re hoping to secure a more permanent site for a trial in the spring planting season,” Birch said.

Birch and Rhodes plan to raise funds using the Indiegogo website, in hopes of scaling up the project. Donors can have a tree planted in their name.

“Ideally, we’d like to have something down the road that’s the size of a small vehicle,” Birch said.

A future prototype would also be GPS-directed.

Birch said he is not aware of any other robot tree planters, although there are some human-operated mechanized versions.

He said they’re similar to an excavator or bulldozer, with an attachment for planting.

“Our idea was to have something with a bit more autonomy,” Birch said.

Birch said his shared interests with Rhodes propelled the project.

“We both grew up on Vancouver Island and share a love of the outdoors, as well as electronics. It seemed like a neat thing to bring those two interests together,” Birch said.

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