Self-driving cars have been capturing the minds of the world, but most autonomous vehicles still have a steering wheel, giving the driver the option to take control at a moments notice.
At the nucleus of this robotic revolution are driverless cars, which are now legal in five U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and are expected to be available to the public as early as 2020. But cars aren’t the only vehicles ripe for automation.
The latest dump truck developed by Komatsu is a bit different -- it doesn't have a cab for a human operator. The company calls it the Komatsu Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle. It's a 2,700 horsepower autonomous truck designed to increase open pit productivity by taking the operator out of the equation. Specifically, the company is trying to eliminate the three-point turn, a method of turning a vehicle around in a narrow space by moving forward, backward, and forward again in a sequence of arcs by developing a vehicle that doesn't need to see where it's going.
Watch a 4-year-old drive a dump truck by remote control.
That may seem like a method that would be hard to eliminate, but it makes a lot of sense -- operators can only pilot a vehicle by looking forward out of the window, requiring them to turn the vehical around once they get to a dump site to deposit materials. A self driving hauler doesn't have that setback: it simply reverse's direction without turning. The design better balanced than normal trucks, with the load equally distributed mid-way on its four-wheel drive chassis. Komatsu is hoping the balanced load will help the new hauler better negotiate rough or slippery terrain.
The Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle was only just unveiled in Vegas, but Komatsu says it's planning to get the rig on the market (and into mining operations) soon.
“Safety alone will never sell these systems . . . it’s safety plus economic value,” says Gurela, who cites as an example Canadian oil company Suncor Energy, which is deploying self-driving hauler trucks in Alberta’s oil sands with the hypothesis that they will increase productivity by eliminating human error. “In the oil sands, 400-ton hauler trucks make around 20 trips per day. If you can get two more trips out of the mine per truck per day, that’s a pretty significant improvement in the total production output of that mine.”
Even with its generous returns, automation won’t likely lead to operator extinction. “Operators in the future will probably be more like commercial airplane pilots,” Rio Tinto's Van Hampton says. “They’ll still be needed to make the right inputs and intervene if things go south. Their knowledge, therefore, will be a lot more important than the mechanical part of it—pulling levers and holding onto joysticks.”
Operators or not, in the same way that driverless cars will lead to more enjoyable commutes, autonomous dozers, cranes, trucks, and excavators ultimately could lead to more enjoyable buildings by yielding savings in time, labor, and money that owners and developers can then invest into better design.
“The more you can optimize construction with digital modeling, then execute it with autonomous or semi-autonomous machinery,” Van Hampton says, “the better the quality of the construction is going to be, the faster it can get built, the more profit that will be returned to the people building it, and the more value end users are going to get out of it.”