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Consistency of operation and increased utilization are significant motivators for increased automation in mining, according to John Williamson of Komatsu America Corp. (Click arrow at top right of image to view an additional image.)

The drive for driverless vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are a hot topic, most noticeably in the automotive world where high-profile projects such as the Google Self-Driving Car receive plenty of press. But automated driving/operation is making significant headway in the off-highway realm as well, especially in mining applications. Safety is a primary reason companies are pursuing autonomous vehicles/equipment, but safety is also a major obstacle to widespread implementation. Legislation, for example, has been signed in certain states to allow the testing of automated vehicles on public roads, but at least in Michigan the law requires a human in the driver’s seat at all times—just in case. As part of AUVSI’s Unmanned Systems 2014 Conference that took place in May, SAE helped to organize a panel of experts around the topic “On-Road and Off-Road Technologies for Automated Vehicles and Equipment.” During this session, industry experts from the OEM and supplier community discussed the benefits, barriers, and challenges involved with greater autonomy. John Williamson, Manager – Autonomous Vehicle Development, United States Technical Center 2, Komatsu America Corp., and Serge Lambermont, Technical Director Automated Driving at Delphi Electronics & Safety, were two of those experts who provided their insights, some of which are included here.

Where is the genesis of choosing which systems are prime for automation, and what factors go into this analysis?

Serge: In the automotive industry most of the analyses are deductive and existing systems and infrastructures are optimized for automation; in most cases, it is driven by safety, cost improvement, and convenience.

John: In the mining realm, the market has driven research in automation of haul trucks. There are several remote locations where personnel have to be flown in and out to work, and other competing industries in these regions also compete for workers. In this case, the factors that come into effect for analyzing automation are cost, safety, and consistent operation.

What system or area of a vehicle have you found thus far to hold the most opportunity for automation?

Serge: Safety—many accidents can be avoided by active safety systems.

John: In mining, we have automated the full operation of the haul truck. Currently the only time there needs to be human interaction is for errors, maintenance, and fueling.

What would be considered the primary motivator to automate a vehicle?

Serge: The immediate motivator is safety and the increase of connectivity in the vehicle, which could distract the driver.

John: Mainly cost, but consistency of operation [and] increased utilization are also important.

Where are there technology lags that are stunting development and integration of automation?

John: Technology is keeping up fairly well, but I would say most of the room for improvement is in GPS-less navigation and obstacle avoidance technology.

Serge: Perception and object detection, localization, [and] accurate and updated map data.

Are current communication standards like SAE J1939 robust enough to support a jobsite full of autonomous machines?

Serge: Automated vehicles sometimes require central processing of sensor data as, for example, is supported by the Delphi multi-domain controller. This communication requires a higher bandwidth than CAN. Flexray and Ethernet are alternatives with higher bandwidth and a higher level of functional safety. Delphi supports CAN, Flexray, and Ethernet with automotive-grade hardware components (controllers, interface, wiring, wiring design, and functional safety decomposition).

Are there particular off-highway industries that are more accepting of automated systems?

John: I feel that the mining industry has embraced automation very well. The mining area can be segregated and controlled easier than other systems such as highway and other applications.

How are equipment operators reacting to the use of autonomous machines in mining? Has there been any pushback for fear of job losses?

John: In mining, so far the implementation has been in regions where there is a shortage of workers, so not much pushback so far. Also, more desirable jobs are being created in these areas in terms of pit supervisors, central controllers, and autonomous mining technician jobs.

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