by Bill Koenig – Senior Editor, ADVANCEDMANUFACTURING.ORG
A Caterpillar autonomous vehicle in operation at a mine. (Caterpillar photo)
Autonomous technology well established in mining, agriculture
The auto industry’s biggest current focus is self-driving cars. Established automakers as well as technology companies such as Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google are working to develop cars and light trucks that either assist human drivers or guide themselves.
Heavy vehicle manufacturers have already accomplished that. Caterpillar Inc. (Peoria, IL), with the assistance of Carnegie Mellon’s National Robotics Engineering Center (Pittsburgh), markets autonomous trucks for mining and other applications. Deere & Co.’s John Deere (Moline, IL) was an early developer of autonomous vehicles, in this case tractors and other farm vehicles. Over the years, it has picked up help from NASA.
The catalyst for such products was the need to reduce costs and increase productivity. Self-driving mining trucks, for example, work longer because they don’t have drivers. Autonomous tractors can plant seed and spread fertilizer more precisely, saving money by reducing or eliminating overlap.
Such vehicles also travel designated off-highway routes at mines and fields. That’s simpler than cars self-navigating on the open road.
“The application [agricultural and mining vehicles] is definitely more constrained, even though it is still very complex,” said Herman Herman, director of the National Robotics Engineering Center, part of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. The center has worked with both Caterpillar and Deere.
Recent advancements in technology have hastened the continued development of self-driving off-highway vehicles, Herman said.
“From the hardware side, there are many new sensors that are not only more capable, but are also lower cost, enabling a whole new set of applications,” he said in an e-mail interview. “From the software side, there have been many advances in AI [artificial intelligence] algorithms that also enable much better capabilities.”
What’s more, Herman said, “As we design and build more robots, there has been much better understanding on the system engineering perspective on what it takes to build autonomous systems, such as the self-driving truck.”
Automating Mining Operations
Self-driving heavy vehicles go back more than a quarter century. Caterpillar and Carnegie Mellon began working together in the 1980s on ways to automate surface mining equipment.