Many industries of late cite reliable labour, the difficulty of recruiting new talent, and lower costs as today’s most pressing issues. As they search for a solution, autonomous technology is an ever-brightening light at the end of the tunnel…
Robotics are constantly evolving in today’s factories and workspaces, to the point where automation can be trusted to perform varied and complex tasks. Companies taking up this latest challenge are as varied as the jobs that automation can perform, and for resource operations, vehicles are often where automation innovation is most likely to be found.
When describing levels in automation technology, there are several layers that each define an increasingly greater level of robot control over given machinery. In this article, most of the driving technologies discussed are aiming for the top: what is known as level 5 automation.
The Society of Automotive Engineers details six levels of automation, from 0 to 5. While the lowest, 0, describes fully manual vehicle operations with no automation at all, level 5 describes vehicles that are entirely autonomously controlled. These vehicles do not require any human interaction to move or complete tasks.
Level 5 automation is not available for widespread, mass-market solutions yet, but it’s the goal of these technologies to get as close as possible to this benchmark.
From trucks to rovers and even railway systems, automated systems for guidance and control on worksites are seeing greater usage than ever before. In previously perilous fields like mining, vehicles controlled autonomously can improve on environmental identification and positioning capacity, as well as complete tasks like route-tracking, parking, and more for the benefit of workers.
According to a 2021 report for MiningTechnology.com, technology can automate haulage operations, thereby reducing the risk of injuries at mine sites due to the reduced human presence around dangerous equipment. Many companies got behind this drive for greater safety early and have long since introduced smart systems to mining operations. These include Caterpillar’s Cat Minestar Command system, Komatsu’s FrontRunner AHS (autonomous haulage system), and others.
These systems are used to control the autonomous trucks in use in mining operations and they first entered service around 2008 (Komatsu) but are recently being rolled out in significant numbers. They aim to further reduce workplace safety incidents and downtime by way of near-continuous operation; in the case of Caterpillar, the company has reported that 2 billion tons had been hauled using its Command system by April 2020.
Other companies are looking to develop the autonomous truck concept to allow for engines driven by renewable biofuel (Scania, Rio Tinto), or powered entirely by electricity (Volvo’s TA15 line), which will potentially drive the acceptance of these solutions into fields where the technology of energy-use evolves even further.
Another resource industry benefiting from automation is forestry. Unlike spaces like mining which look to spread the use of AGVs (autonomous ground vehicles), forestry is focusing on semi-autonomous vehicle control by using either continuous assistance systems or a process called control trading.
Continuous assistance systems enable an operator to delegate specific tasks to a machine and monitor its performance in case intervention is needed, while control trading is more hands-off and doesn’t need any monitoring at all.
In his PhD thesis, robotics researcher Ola Ringdahl observes that CTL (cut-to-length) forestry technology is the most common logging system in Europe, one which uses both fully automated harvesters and forwarders in the process. These systems can process 100 trees in an hour, but an automated combi machine could replace both of these by effectively doing both jobs at once.
Automated logging technologies continue to improve speed and rely less on human input. Machines like the “harwarder” do the job of both harvester and forwarder in one and can be combined with an ALC (autonomous load-changing system) to allow for harvesting with virtually no wait times. Other systems include ADL (autonomous direct loading) which automatically drives and unloads logs, and RDL (remote direct loading) which uses manned forwarders to remotely control a harvester.
Automation options for mining and forestry range from the already implemented to the theoretical, while large-scale automation in the agriculture and farming industries may already be possible. This is thanks to the autosteer functionality found on automation systems on farms and in agriculture systems; however, according to David Frabotta in a piece for PrecisionAg, “It is important to give users flexibility to integrate new technology slowly.”
Autosteer is a GPS-guided system used to produce cab-less vehicles since 2016, and tasks like combining, harvesting, and planting have already begun to move toward driver-less functionality. ACS and Fendt have already developed autosteer command systems and units for these purposes, while companies like John Deere have begun to dip a toe.
Deere now offers products like the See & Spray Select, which uses camera technology to intelligently detect crops in need of pesticide and herbicide sprays and reduce costs for farmers in ridding crops of weeds.
In agriculture, further movement is being made toward Level 5 automation but as noted by Frabotta, progress will depend on farmers and many long-running family-owned companies accepting an entirely new way of working.
Other resource-based industries are introducing autonomous systems technology. In the drive to reduce cost and risk while increasing efficiency, oil and gas companies are beginning to adopt autonomous rod pump management, which enables autonomous control with a focus on performance and safety.
In a presentation by American multinational Emerson, company officials highlight the ability of these systems to make enhanced autonomous decisions through advanced prescriptive analytics, giving better insights into the operations and processes at hand while also lowering operating costs.
In the wastewater industry, automated wastewater treatment can also be a way to streamline production while lowering costs and is available in many different forms (manual batch processors, semi-automatic, automatic) to produce a suitable element for any sewer system.
Many other industries that supplement or aid resource-related sectors, such as logistics, have famously been implementing and experimenting with driverless technology for many years now. While automated delivery is far from standard at this point, its use in applications like haulage vehicles serving the sectors mentioned above is being explored as a real solution to issues like driver shortages and cost-cutting.
These are but a few examples across the resource sectors of the possibilities offered by autonomous vehicles and vehicle control. As leading-edge companies adapt to the changing nature of work in today’s world, it seems inevitable that vehicles and tools controlled by robotics will become the standard and perhaps even ordinary, to the benefit of entire industries.