Autonomous Trucking, Farming, Harvesting – and now Mining too

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This Volvo truck is operating autonomously in a mine 1,300 meters underground

Autonomous, self-driving, piloted, driverless – whichever way you choose to describe them, vehicles capable of taking over some or all of the driving duties have become the major topic of debate among engineers, social scientists, urban planners and even insurance companies. But amid all the hype about how driverless cars will affect our lives, the driverless revolution has already begun – not in a shiny glass-and-chrome luxury car showroom but in the heavy-duty world of trucks and industrial vehicles.

It was more than two years ago that Mercedes-Benz first demonstrated its Future Truck on a closed-off Autobahn in Germany, followed in early 2015 with Freightliner’s Highway Pilot system operating on a production-based Cascadia Evolution on open public Interstates in Nevada. Volvo, too, has trialed a different type of semi-autonomous driving in its convoy program, and this year the Dutch government and European truck makers, including DAF, have organized the EcoTwin platooning project to test close-following trucks linked wirelessly to a lead vehicle.

Now Volvo, currently launching the latest phases of its DriveMe autonomous car field trials in Gothenburg, London and China, as well as in Pittsburgh with Über, has recently released a video of a truck operating autonomously in a mine. In the film, shot 1,300 meters underground in a northern Swedish zinc and copper mine, a Volvo executive stands in the center of a dark tunnel and the approaching truck, with no driver at the wheel, stops a few centimeters away from him, its array of lasers and scanners having detected an obstruction. The truck itself is a near-stock Volvo FMX and the longer-term intention is for it to be able to drive out of the mine and onto public roads to construction sites. The attractions of the technology are obvious: improved underground safety, better efficiency and the ability to work around the clock without fatigue.

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ZF’s Innovation Tractor adds electric drive to the trailer to boost traction and carrying capacity

Mercedes-Benz’s Future Truck 2025 concept, first revealed in 2014, is something of a blueprint for upcoming highway-level autonomous operation technologies. And at this September’s IAA Truck show in Germany, Tier 1 supplier ZF presented its Innovation Truck with a suite of more accessible assistance technologies capable of relatively rapid implementation.

ZF’s Evasive Maneuver Assistant, for instance, seeks to prevent accidents where the truck runs into a stationary queue of vehicles on the freeway, especially in slippery conditions. With this system, developed in collaboration with Wabco, the truck is able to perform evasive steering maneuvers under programmed control, while still applying full braking power on all axles. Likewise, the Highway Driving Assistant is able to take charge of the steering, engine, transmission and braking to keep the vehicle in lane and ensure a safe distance from the vehicle in front.

At the opposite end of the speed range, the SafeRange function can be called into play. This has parallels with passenger car self-parking, but on a larger scale: it uses GPS data to allow the operator to maneuver the truck with great precision into its loading bay, and commands can be sent remotely from a handheld tablet. The truck moves in electric mode and, in contrast to the simpler system shown two years ago, all the steering functions are automated.

Similar technologies are employed by ZF’s Innovation Tractor, which the supplier claims is the “first time a farm vehicle can see, think and act.” The machine is a tractor-trailer combination which, like the Innovation Truck, can be maneuvered remotely from a handheld tablet; in addition, the trailer has its own electrically powered axle, which significantly helps the pulling power of the combination up hills and through boggy terrain. The technology is derived from that used in ZF’s bus axles and power is supplied by a TERRA+ module within the tractor’s Terramatic CVT transmission.

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Intelligent hitch detection by ZF: the tractor selects the correct implement and automatically hitches up

ZF says the electronic control system automatically detects when and how much additional traction is required – and then delivers the necessary push. “Such a concept is especially attractive to farmers who would otherwise have to buy a more powerful tractor just to make a limited number of journeys with a fully laden trailer. Thanks to the trailer’s e-axle, they no longer have to make this unnecessary investment,” explains Olrik Weinmann, who leads the Innovation Tractor project.

The Innovation Tractor promises to simplify farmyard operations on another level, too. It is able to recognize all the farm trailers, tools and implements and is capable of finding the correct attachment, maneuvering across to it, even if it means crossing a busy farmyard, and then hitching up to the chosen piece of equipment. The whole process is guided by an array of sensors and cameras, with each implement having its own “target” tag, and comprehensive safety algorithms stop the tractor should people or animals get in the way.

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The CASE IH concept tractor has no cab or onboard driver, operating entirely autonomously

New Holland has gone a step further with its NHDrive Autonomous Tractor concept, one of two machines previewed by CNH Industrial at the 2016 Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa. Both form part of CNH’s vision of precision land management and both point towards eventual remote operation of almost all farm equipment and the ability to work 24/7 to make the most of scarce labor and narrow windows of suitable weather. The NHDrive concept has a conventional cab, allowing manned operation for tasks such as refueling and on-road transit. In field work, however, it can be preprogrammed for a full day’s work, navigating by precision GPS and responding to weather conditions as they change. It can synchronize with three or more other machines, none of which have to be manned; later, says CNH, combine harvesters and grain transporters could also be automated, effectively mechanizing every step of the process.

The Case IH concept employs similar thinking, but is entirely unmanned. It makes its way to the field along selected farm tracks and calculates the most efficient infield paths to save fuel. Real-time data feedback, along with a suite of cameras, gives the farmer a clear view of the processes, and intelligent obstacle detection allows the farmer with the remote control interface to remotely instruct the tractor to circumnavigate the obstacle or drive through it.

The Claas LEXION combine harvesters already incorporate telematics technology to respond to slopes, contours and ground conditions, as well as analyzing the grain as the harvest is taking place. Though full-scale automation of the entire harvesting process operation is perhaps some years away, pre-programmed working round the clock in selected fields is already in the cards thanks to precision satellite guidance and mapping which includes every field, track, gate, contour and change of crop. The machines won’t get much rest, placing demands on drivelines and lube systems like never before – but with the latest advances in fluids, the lubricants industry is already ahead of the game.

Lubrizol, for one, is making heavy investments in the off-highway sector, affirming that the lubricants industry works closely with equipment manufacturers and tier suppliers globally to bring to market new-generation lubricants that enable the implementation of new technology while protecting equipment and supporting the off-highway industry’s continuing push for higher productivity. “This requires extensive investment in research and testing to support product development,” says Lubrizol.

As for tomorrow’s tractor driver, he could be a programmable tablet rather than the overworked, sun-baked individual in a checked shirt we see today. And it is perfectly feasible that, before long, farming could become a desk job as the farm owner enjoys a hot coffee in an air-conditioned office while supervising the banks of monitors which tell him or her precisely what the fleet of fully-automated machines is doing and even give real-time feedback on the quality of the crops being harvested.

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