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After the initial testing phase with the wheel loader, Volvo CE plans to expand testing to other machines to see whether it's possible to operate an entire work cycle using 5G. (Volvo CE)

Volvo CE trials 5G mobile connectivity

For years Volvo Construction Equipment has operated wheel loaders via remote control in underground mining operations, first for very dedicated tasks and more recently increasing the flexibility and scope of their operation. A recent test program with mining company Boliden examined both standard WiFi and a 4G+ communication system built with the help of Ericsson, on a machine located more than 400 m (1,300 ft) below ground. Though the program was deemed a great success by both companies and considered an important step on the pathway to truly autonomous machines, they agreed that a more robust communication system was necessary. Hello 5G.

Volvo CE is now trialing 5G mobile connectivity in a two-year partner program by Telia and Ericsson, this time employing a remote-controlled wheel loader, the L180H, in a 25-hectare construction-site setting in Eskilstuna, Sweden. Calle Skillsäter, Volvo CE’s technical specialist for connected machines, offers some insights on the technology, this latest trial program and where it can go from here, in this edited exchange provided by the company.

What does Volvo CE hope to achieve with this trial?

A faster, more reliable mobile network will mean we’re at the forefront of driving a much faster market implementation of technologies like automation. Something that had seemed impossible a few years ago is now a very real opportunity today.

What is really exciting is that at this very early stage, we are in a unique position to iron out any problems and play a key role in actually influencing how 5G will work for industrial purposes when it is rolled out more widely. The goal for us at Volvo CE is to make this system so mature and so successful that we can test it with our customers—to see how this technology can function on a real construction site. Hopefully that will be something we can achieve by the end of the trial.

Will you be testing with other Volvo machines?

The aim is that after the initial testing phase with the wheel loader, we will then be able to test it with the HX2 hauler concept machine to see whether it is possible to have a work cycle operated entirely using 5G. In principle, we can then test 5G with six to eight autonomous haulers transporting gravel across the site.

Can other sectors benefit from 5G automation?

Absolutely, it’s not just mining [and construction]. The forestry industry could certainly benefit, as an industry where you have lots of incoming trucks loading and unloading on to trains, often at night…And again, for really dangerous jobs in the steel industry or the energy sector, where physically moving material can risk explosion or toxic gas emissions, then removing people is clearly a good solution.

For construction, is boosting productivity a key driver?

Safety is obviously a big factor, but clearly 5G will have a direct positive impact on productivity. Today’s remote-control technology provides a delay which makes it very difficult to control a machine with any speed or precision, but 5G will be as good as real time. In addition, the picture quality is much better, video footage is in a better resolution and 5G provides a more reliable connection—all of which makes it easier for the operator in the simulator.

What challenges have you experienced so far?

We did find it hard to initially get the hardware. We are so early in the trial that we have trouble finding modems to communicate with the antenna. Telia has been useful in providing the right equipment for us to use. We are so early in trialing this technology that this obviously has its advantages and disadvantages.

When will we see 5G rolled out to the wider industry?

It depends on different use cases in construction—how do they work, do they meet the demands of the industry, is it feasible for customers? 5G will come first to those that benefit the most, but it will take time to build the network and required infrastructure. For us in the construction industry, and for static operations like a quarry or mine, it really can come quite fast. The timing is good—our customers need connectivity and they want more data. And we’re the ones providing the research to see just how possible it is.

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