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Tracking illegal logging in Romania, autonomous mining, ancient calendars and Canadian cows

1. Ghost trucks tracked
Romania

√ Every day on Romania’s highways, “ghost trucks” slip by unnoticed. Digital records show the vehicles, loaded with timber, coming from verified logging sites in the Romanian forest. But the GPS data associated with the records reveal they actually have much more random origins: from cornfields, to cemeteries, to California. It’s part of an illegal logging industry the government has said removes an estimated 141 million cubic feet of timber each year for the country’s old growth forests, some of the last in Europe. But a new, high-tech solution from Romania’s Ministry of the Environment is designed to counteract illegal logging by putting as much information as possible in the hands of the public using satellite imagery and GPS tracking. The new system, launched in December, is called Inspectorul Padurii, which means “Forest Inspector.” It works by combining images from three different satellites, taken at least once every five days. This information is used to help spot illegal logging. 

2. Mining autonomously
Australia

√ Trucks the size of a small two-story house without a driver or anyone else on board. Mining company Rio Tinto has 73 of these titans hauling iron ore 24 hours a day at four mines in Australia’s Mars-red northwest corner. At one, known as West Angelas, the vehicles work alongside robotic rock drilling rigs. The company is also upgrading the locomotives that haul ore hundreds of miles to port — the upgrades will allow the trains to drive themselves, and be loaded and unloaded automatically. Rio Tinto intends its automated operations in Australia to preview a more efficient future for all of its mines — one that will also reduce the need for human miners. The rising capabilities and falling costs of robotics technology are allowing mining and oil companies to reimagine the dirty, dangerous business of getting resources out of the ground. Rio Tinto uses driverless trucks provided by Japan’s Komatsu. They find their way around using precision GPS and look out for obstacles using radar and laser sensors. 

3. Calendar Rock
Italy

√ Italian archaeologists have found an intriguing Stonehenge-like “calendar rock” in Sicily. Featuring a 3.2-foot diameter hole, the rock formation marked the beginning of winter some 5,000 years ago. The holed Neolithic rock was discovered Nov. 30, 2016 on a hill near a prehistoric necropolis six miles from Gela, on the southern coast of Sicily, by a team who was surveying some World War II-era bunkers. Using a compass, cameras and a video camera mounted to a GPS-equipped drone, archaeologist Giuseppe La Spina and colleagues carried out a test in December at the winter solstice. The idea was to find out if the rising sun at solstice aligned with the distinct hole in the rock feature. According to La Spina, the experiment was “a total success.” At least two other holed stones have been found in Sicily in the past. 

4. Cow Heard
Canada

√ In the mid-’70s, as a research scientist at the Melfort Research Station, Duane McCartney helped Saskatchewan Agriculture evaluate the first button-type electronic ear tags on their cows at the Pathlow pasture research project. At the time, he also had a big satellite remote sensing project to monitor pasture productivity, and would tell colleagues that the goal was to develop a system whereby he could sit in his office back in Melfort and monitor and remotely move the cows to different paddocks. They all laughed back then, but now it is a reality. There are some exciting innovations on the horizon for managing grazing operations, and recently Saskatoon was host to over 500 rangeland researchers and managers from 48 different countries at the International Rangeland Congress. The event featured over 500 presentations on all sorts of topics involving rangeland management. With the theme of “Managing the World’s Rangelands and Wild Lands in a HighTech World” it provided a forum for some very interesting capabilities of computers, cellphones, internet and satellite remote sensing for enhanced rangeland management.

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