Are you ready for autopilot?

Autopilot

One of the fastest developing fields of technology in 2016 has been self-driving vehicles. Toyota, General Motors, Honda, Tesla and even Google, not primarily known as an automotive manufacturer, have this year revealed prototype autonomous or semi-autonomous car technologies.

Progress has not been entirely smooth – at least two people have been killed in semi-autonomous Teslas – however it continues to be rapid.

Construction machinery manufacturers in general are unable to match the research and development budgets of the automotive majors, but they too have been making sufficient progress to indicate that driverless construction machinery is just around the corner.

Automation already exists for moving containers around ports, where the simple repetitive nature of the movements lends itself to automation. Similarly, early construction-related applications are in the extraction of minerals; in those huge open-cast mines and quarries in Australia, for example, where big trucks trundle back and forth. Since Komatsu introduced its Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) in 2008, AHS dump trucks have hauled more than a billion tonnes of overburden and minerals at big mines, mainly in Chile and Australia.

Caterpillar also has dozens of driverless haulage trucks operating in Australian mines.

At the Minexpo trade show in Las Vegas in September 2016, Komatsu showed what it calls its Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle, pictured below. Unlike Komatsu’s 930E and 830E autonomous models, this vehicle doesn’t even have an operator’s cab, thus maximising payload capability to 230 tonnes. It can go backwards and forwards with equal performance, thus eliminating 180-degree turn manoeuvres. Gross power output is 2014 kW (2700HP) and maximum speed is 64 km/h.

Komatsu truck

This year has also seen Volvo Group demonstrating driverless trucks – the Volvo FMX type, regularly seen on highways – also for mining applications. Volvo has teamed up with Saab’s technology consulting subsidiary Combitech for a research project at improving the transport flow and safety in the Kristineberg mine, one of the deepest mines in Sweden.

Separately, Volvo Construction Equipment has been showing the fruits of its automated machinery development work, automating an L120 wheeled loader to travel backwards and forwards, fetching a load and tipping it into an A25F articulated dump truck (below). However, while Volvo has proved what can be achieved with technology, it is likely to be a few years yet before the machine operator is replaced in this application. Construction is different to mining; sites tend to be much smaller and much more congested.

Volvo machinery

“The demonstration machines were programmed to work together and carry out a specific set of actions on a pre-defined route,” explains Jenny Elfsberg, Volvo Construction Equipment director of emerging technologies. “The machines can perform the same task over and over again, along a fixed route, for a relatively long period of time. But it’s still early days for this technology, we are working on developing solutions that have the required safety and performance levels that the market will accept. There is still a long way to go so there are no plans for industrialization at this stage.”

There is still an important hurdle to clear, she says.“Currently these prototype machines don’t communicate with each other and machine-to-machine communication technology – where machines ‘talk’ to one another and to a central control point – is crucial when it comes to avoiding collisions and facilitating an efficient flow of equipment.”

Dozer

A closer prospect is automation in earthmoving and grading. Caterpillar and others have shown how geopositioning technology and 3D machine control can be used to automate the grading levels required across a site. On a large greenfield site, it is a small step from this to removing the dozer driver and moving to full machine automation. It is already happening on test sites.

Video animation of Komatsu’s Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle

Steve Rhine

About Steve Rhine

Community Manager at MachineryZone USA - All latest construction news on MachineryZone Mag!