Volvo CE shows that the future lies in autonomy
Autonomous loading and hauling is the future – even in Africa.
The future lies in autonomy! This is the message from all of the leading original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), and it seems that African fleet operators are interested in this trend.
Remote mining locations, a dearth in operational skills and the need to ensure safer sites while boosting productivity in challenging economic environments make the continent fertile grounds for autonomous fleets.
However, experts agree that the technology would have to be phased in over an extended period. This is considering the already sensitive balance that has to be maintained between mines and surrounding communities. If managed effectively, autonomy could play a valuable role in upskilling communities that serve mines. This, in turn, will resolve many of the socio-economic issues that blight mining activities in countries, such as South Africa. Higher skills will demand better wages and therefore lead to improved living conditions.
However, it is the promises in achieving major increases in productivity and lower operating costs that continue to drive research and development in autonomous mining equipment. This is a major benefit especially during an unforgiving economic period for owners and operators of earthmoving and mining equipment.
More recently, our correspondent visited Eskilstuna, Sweden, to witness an exclusive demo of Volvo Construction Equipment’s (Volvo CE) prototype autonomous wheel loader and articulated hauler working together.
The prototype wheel loader filled the prototype articulated hauler – before dumping its load and repeating the cycle. In a one-hour comparison it was found that the autonomous wheel loader could reach the equivalent of 70% of that of a skilled operator’s productivity levels when loading and unloading. This is not just theoretical, the machine has also done “real work” for a Volvo CE customer at an asphalt plant in Sweden.
“The demonstration machines were programmed to work together and carry out a specific set of actions on a pre-defined route,” explains Jenny Elfsberg, director of emerging technologies at Volvo CE. “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 industrialisation at this stage,” she continues. “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.”
The machines that were demonstrated are all standard Volvo products – a L120 wheel loader and an A25F articulated hauler – which have been upgraded with autonomous technology. Once a solution is finalised, this technology could be applied to other products in Volvo CE’s range.
“Autonomous machines will increase safety in hazardous working environments and eliminate the possibility of accidents caused by human error,” says Elfsberg. “They will also perform repetitive tasks more efficiently and precisely than a human operator and, because machines will be operated in the most efficient way, customers will benefit from improved performance, productivity, fuel efficiency and durability. In the future you could also potentially have one operator for three or four machines, increasing productivity and further decreasing costs. Looking ahead, I imagine that autonomous machines will be smaller and more robust. There will be no need for a cab or suspension – much like the HX1 concept which Volvo CE unveiled as part of its electric site research project at the Xploration Forum.”
More than a decade
Volvo CE has been working on autonomous machine research for more than a decade. Its focus on futuristic technology such as autonomous machines is fueling the development of mid-term innovations at the company. Technology such as semi-automated or automated functions will support more immediate developments years before it’s possible to realize the ultimate goal. There are already cases of automated and assist-functionalities on the market today. For example, earlier this year Volvo CE launched Volvo Co-Pilot, a system that offers a range of intelligent machine services – Load Assist, Dig Assist, Compact Assist and Pave Assist – to help operators deliver higher quality outcomes, in less time and with less effort.
“We are starting to see systems that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or control primary functions,” says Elfsberg. “In the future we will see increased machine autonomy and the operator will act more in a supervisory capacity. This will provide less stressful, more interesting work for operators, with perhaps several machines being controlled remotely by one operator. Of course some tasks are so complicated that you really need to feel what you’re doing, and in those cases we will still need operators controlling the machines from inside the cab.”
It makes sense to automate the so-called “low-hanging” fruits in any operation, including mundane load-and-haul and stockpiling activities. Already, we have witnessed major breakthroughs on the drilling front where rigs are being controlled off-site far away from operations. Many large mining companies are insisting on this capability because it removes more people from harm’s way.
The challenge, however, lies in automating environments where there are many variables. This includes underground, notoriously hazardous working conditions, but OEMs have certainly not shied away from the challenge, and are taking steps closer to achieving the ideal.
Does this challenge the school of thought that Africa lends itself to simple equipment that does not rely on sophisticated technology? Clearly, this may no longer be the case.
Watch this space!