Automated Trucks in an Autonomous World
Understanding the latest advances in equipment for the construction jobsite
Connected trucks and equipment are here. With today’s latest-model pick-up trucks and heavy equipment, an operator can monitor systems from his cab. These vehicles can provide new safety and connectivity features; and some are beginning to drive autonomously on the jobsite.
With this in mind, there are two clear areas where vehicles are advancing in the construction industry. Today’s truck is doing different tasks on the road and at the jobsite.
The first area vehicles are having a clear impact on the jobsite is commercial trucks. These are like cockpits or mobile offices on wheels (for more detail about how this is advancing see sidebar). The second part where machines are advancing are right at the heart of the project—in the trenches of the jobsite. Here equipment is becoming more intelligent, taking the burden off of workers, and it will impact how work is done in the future.
Robotic trucks and drilling rigs operate 24 hours a day at Rio Tinto’s iron ore mine in northwestern Australia. The locomotives soon are slated to drive the ore autonomously to a port hundreds of miles away.
At BHP Billiton’s nearby iron ore mine, the minerals and mining conglomerate has retrofitted its rigs so they can work on their own—without human operators—by using automation software.
Both Rio Tinto Group, a minerals and mining company, www.riotinto.com, London, U.K., and BHP, a British-Australian mining company, www.bhp.com, Melbourne, Australia, plan to expand the autonomous heavy equipment to all of their mines.
The expansion of autonomous heavy-duty equipment at industrial sites has become more economical and reliable just as global economic growth and the rise of electric vehicles are boosting demand for metals such as zinc, cobalt, copper, nickel, and iron ore.
Jenny Elfsberg, director of emerging technologies for Volvo Construction Equipment, www.volvoce.com, Gothenburg, Sweden, says the autonomous drilling and haulage is the first step in having robots take over repetitive, predictable, and well-defined worksteps.
Yet humans are by no means an endangered species on construction jobsites. In fact, they are needed to ensure that the machines run smoothly, she says.
“We will need skilled operators for many, many years ahead,” Elfsberg says. “Some (operators) might work remotely, but not all.”
Even as AI (artificial intelligence) starts playing a bigger role and machines take on more complex tasks, humans and their analytical skills will still be needed to resolve problems that inevitably come up.
For example, a human operator can spot when a machine running the same path over and over starts wearing down a pathway, and can stop an autonomous haulage truck from becoming a safety hazard on a public roadway, since it can’t handle an unanticipated crisis, Elfsberg says.
Ironically, construction work zones are among the most challenging hazards for automated vehicles because they do not all look alike, and a vehicle traveling at highway speed will only have a few seconds to recognize that it needs to swerve or brake to avoid crashing into the work zone, says Steven Shladover, a research engineer at the University of California at Berkeley and program manager of mobility at the California PATH Program of the University’s Institute of Transportation Studies, www.path.berkeley.edu.
“If the work zone can broadcast a wireless message that clearly specifies its location and what lane(s) it is blocking, that can give the approaching vehicles much earlier and more precise information about the hazard so that they can respond more safely,” Shladover says. “This depends on defining a standardized message that all vehicles will be able to understand correctly and having the wireless spectrum available for sending and receiving those messages.”
Jerry Ullman, a research engineer specializing in work zones at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, www.tamu.edu, College Station, Texas, says, “Work zones are so dynamic, so site-specific in a lot of cases, that it’s really difficult to try to write a code to tell the vehicle, ‘When you see this, do this.’”
That means a construction worker’s casual or offhand gesture could accidently cause an autonomous piece of equipment to hurdle into a backhoe or a piece of mining equipment, as one example.
Operators at the construction jobsite must additionally take responsibility for monitoring the machines.
“If a sophisticated system helps the human operators work in the most efficient way with the machine, when human operation is necessary, perhaps the operators will monitor the machines from their homes at some point. It would allow for increased productivity and life quality for the operators as well,” he says.
As machines get smarter, they’ll also get smaller, as automation, connectivity, and electrification become more sophisticated.
That’s good news, Elfsberg continues, because smaller construction machines are easier to design; they make production flow less vulnerable; and they may open a new paradigm in which drones replace trucks as materials haulers.
With today’s technology, how do the autonomous behemoths on construction sites work?
The drills operate autonomously, and can situate the mill head square with each hole before leveling and then drilling to the exact details of written instructions.
The heavy construction machinery comes equipped with software to feed details such as rotation speed and torque pressure back to the operators. A human operator can take over at any time.
Despite advances, Elfsberg says a thicket of red tape is snarling the advent of even more autonomous construction sites.
Still needed are more flexible regulations, standards, processes, and legislation; a robust IoT (Internet of Things) system; business model adjustments, and beefed up integrity, data exchange, and cybersecurity protections, she says.
“If we can get the shift to automation to happen on specific sites; optimized processes with autonomous machines integrated, and a replacement of the sometimes uncoordinated and less efficient processes—which might happen due to lack of operators or the need for productivity improvement—it will drive all automation aspects in the right collaborative manner,” Elfsberg says.
While more widespread automation won’t be perfect from the start, progress is inevitable in the construction industry’s ecosystem.
“We not only owe it to the future generations, we also need it in the industry to be competitive,” she says of ensuring future construction industry automation is sustainable, productive, and secure from hackers and cyber thieves.
Trucks Get Connected
Ford Motor Co., www.ford.com, Dearborn, Mich., and Mercedes, a division of Daimler AG, www.daimler.com/en, Stuttgart, Germany, are putting a drone landing site in the back of some of their heavy trucks and integrating their operation into the truck, says Jeremy Carlson, principal automotive analyst for IHS Markit, www.ihs.com, London, England.
Carlson likens the pick-up truck cabs to “cockpits” that act as “mobile offices.” A pick-up truck driver on-site can connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot and use his or her laptop and connect to internal business systems.
If the site is in an area with unreliable Internet access, technology exists to use wireless boosters and routers to get secure, managed connectivity for applications with LTE-Advanced, gigabit Wi-Fi, and gigabit Ethernet. That way, high-bandwidth applications can work simultaneously.
Construction-site operators may want to command robots from their pick-up trucks, now that the vehicles are sporting luxurious features—as upcoming models unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show in January revealed.
The revived Ford Ranger boasts a center stack with an eight-inch touchscreen that features Ford’s SYNC 3 system. The SYNC 3 features include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, a Ford+Alexa assistant, and navigation.
Pickups are becoming efficient workhorses. The Dodge Ram 1500, www.ramtrucks.com, Auburn Hills, Mich., can hoist 2,300 pounds, and tow up to 12,750 pounds; the Silverado from Chevrolet, www.chevrolet.com, Detroit, Mich., says it is class-leading at 63-cubic feet of volume.
Ford’s stats show that its F-series Super Duty heavy-duty pickup truck can tow up to 32,000 pounds when it is equipped with a 6.7-liter turbodiesel V-8 that makes 440 horsepower and 925 pound-feet of torque.
All in all the truck of today is proving to be more than just a vehicle, but a tool that delivers the power, convenience, and capacity to haul and deliver the smoothest ride on four wheels.