Automation is one of three main technology areas—along with connectivity and alternative drivelines and fuels—that Volvo Construction Equipment is devoting significant R&D resources to further develop. At its recent Xploration Forum in Eskilstuna, Sweden, the company demonstrated for select media including Off-Highway Engineering several advanced prototypes highlighting these technologies. Among them were a prototype autonomous wheel loader and articulated hauler working together: The wheel loader filled the articulated hauler, before dumping its load and repeating the cycle.
“The technologies that are exploding in autonomous cars, we are able to leverage in our industries—infrastructure solutions, construction equipment, highway trucks, buses,” said Martin Weissburg, member of the Volvo Group executive board and president of Volvo CE. “And you can easily argue that autonomous vehicles are easier to launch first in an infrastructure setting like a quarry or a mine or even roadworks, because they’re contained.”
Volvo CE conducted a one-hour comparison between the autonomous wheel loader and one run by a skilled operator, and found that the autonomous prototype could reach productivity levels at the equivalent of 70% when loading and unloading. Jenny Elfsberg, director of emerging technologies, notes that this finding is not just theoretical—the machine has 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,” Elfsberg explained. “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.”
Significant work still needs carried out before such machines can carry out more complex tasks and ultimately reach production, she said: “There are no plans for industrialization at this stage. 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 demonstrator machines are standard Volvo products—a L120 wheel loader and an A25F articulated hauler—which have been upgraded with autonomous technology. Add-on equipment includes high-performance computers compared to the standard ECUs, roof-mounted GNSS on the hauler, which provides about 1-cm (0.4-in) accuracy in positioning, and a LiDAR system and radar on the loader. Algorithms can recalculate a vehicle’s route in real time for obstacle avoidance.
Once a solution is finalized, the technology could be applied to other products in Volvo CE’s range, Elfsberg said.
“In the future, you could potentially have one operator for three or four machines, increasing productivity and further decreasing costs,” she said. “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.”
Volvo CE has been working on autonomous-machine research for more than a decade, resulting in the development of what the company terms “mid-term innovations.” Semi-automated or automated functions will support more immediate developments years before realizing full autonomy. For example, Volvo Co-Pilot, launched earlier in 2016, offers a range of intelligent machine services to help operators, including Load Assist, Dig Assist, Compact Assist and Pave Assist.
“We are starting to see systems that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or control primary functions,” said Elfsberg. “In the future, we will see increased machine autonomy and the operator will act more in a supervisory capacity…Of course, some tasks are so complicated that you really need to feel what you’re doing; in those cases, we will still need operators controlling the machines from inside the cab.”