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Autonomous vehicles off the roads today: A glimpse into new territory

The autonomous trend could even be coming to the high seas (Photo: Rolls Royce)

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Gareth Watson
Gareth Watson
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Let’s take our eyes off the road for a second; and instead, turn our attention to the lesser known vehicles following the driverless trend.

With the launch of Daimler's Future Truck, successful cross-border testing and the benefits of platooning stealing the limelight recently, one might think that trucks are the only automated commercial vehicles around. Well, they're not; as you'll see from our fascinating sneak peek at what's on the market already or in development in other industries. And who knows, perhaps we can learn from them.

The driverless haulage system

Pilbara, Western Australia, is home to most of Australia's iron ore. It is also home to the first two mines in the world that move the extracted iron ore using driverless trucks. In 2012, mining giant Rio Tinto deployed 69 driverless vehicles which collectively move about 20 million tons of material a month. The trucks are controlled from an operations center in Perth, 750 miles from the mines and can run 24 hours a day and 365 days a year without a driver onboard. Each Komatsu dump-truck is equipped with vehicle controllers, a high precision GPS system, an obstacle detection system and a wireless network system.

Rio Tinto claims that implementing autonomous haulage increases their capacity to move more material which directly increases productivity. It is thought the trucks will save up to 500 working hours per year. However, as part of the "Mine of the Future" program, their overarching goal is to improve safety: and like with passenger cars, that includes doing away with scenarios where humans can easily become fatigued and make dangerous and costly mistakes. They are of course, not dealing with the complex and cluttered environments that are public roads with their pedestrians and countless other road users - which makes a big difference when deploying driverless vehicles.

The driverless forklift

Repetitive, traffic-free, slow-speed and predictable routes are already proving themselves as perfectly suited to automated vehicles. Such is the case in warehouses and distribution centers. In what are usually cavernous spaces, goods are constantly being "picked" and "stacked" as orders are processed around the clock, requiring the forklifts and other warehouse vehicles to constantly roam the network of aisles. Automated Guided Vehicles have been in use in these environments for a while, traditionally guided by lasers or magnets. The new wave of forklift automation however, uses vision.

Vision guided vehicles - like those developed by Seegrid - are driven once on the desired route by a human operator. On-board cameras installed on top of the truck takes a series of pictures which is then converted into a three-dimensional model of the facility and the route is stored thereafter. Sensors (laser and cameras) are positioned on the vehicle for object detection on all sides which allow the vehicle to react to a constantly changing environment e.g. if a box has been moved, by adjusting its movements.

The driverless bus

"Please do not distract the driver" signs may soon be defunct on buses - as public transport networks begin to dip their toes in the ocean of automation. Daimler recently launched their semi-automated "Future Bus" equipped with CityPilot technology. It took to the streets of the Netherlands in a demonstration where it successfully completed a 12 mile journey on a bus rapid transit route (BRT). Preceding that there were the trials in Switzerland and of course, who could forget Olli?

In fact, there are several projects taking place around the world which aim to test the feasibility of driverless buses or shuttles, albeit at low speeds. The buses in the Swiss town of Sion, for example, travel at up to 12.4 miles per hour (20 kilometers per hour). It is this sort of application that lends itself to automation due to the vehicles having the same routes and often, dedicated lanes. A network of driverless, electric buses would not only get cars off the roads but also reduce emissions. Not to mention, as always, the increased safety due to removing the human driver.

The driverless tractor

Life on the farm is tough; the early mornings, the milking, the herding. But alas, thanks to an automated version of the farmer's best friend (no, not the sheepdog), life might just become a little easier. Autonomous Tractor Corporation (ATC) has spent years developing technology to overcome one of agriculture's greatest hurdles: a lack of manpower in the peak season. To do so, they developed two patented technologies: AutoDrive (the autonomous navigation system) and eDrive (a diesel-electric replacement drivetrain) - both of which can already be retrofitted to existing tractors.

To overcome GPS problems sometimes experienced on farms such as reception dead spots, sunspots or other interference, AutoDrive relies on ATC's proprietary Laser-Radio Navigation System (LRNS) for sub-inch positioning data. The result is a tractor that can be trained to take over repetitive field tasks on its own so the farmer can tend to other operations.

ATC were also behind "Spirit": a concept vehicle with no cab whatsoever, that the company says is the first truly autonomous farm tractor. Recently, another concept tractor was revealed by Case IH Agriculture. Such automation allows for more efficient farm management and is a key technology in what are now known as "precision farming" practices.

The driverless digger

At first, when a hole was too big to be dug with shovels, man turned to diggers. The problem is, diggers still need operators; so although you save time, you are still put to work. But that could all change as construction vehicles like excavators join the automation trend. At the University of Kaiserslautern the notion of a self-digging digger is being explored. The goal? To develop autonomous technology that - when added to an 18 ton excavator - will allow it to perform landscaping tasks.

The University's mobile robot team has so far been able to make the excavator load a truck that is positioned close by. They continue to work on solutions for creating maps for an uneven, unpredictable, 'non-lane' environment as well as restricting the arm movement to avoid collisions.

The driverless cargo ship

It is thought that shipping goods by sea accounts for between 2 and 3 percent of global carbon emissions. That number could increase to 14 percent by 2050. Unmanned cargo ships, absent of an energy-hungry crew, could potentially run on 10 to 15 percent less fuel and also cut their CO2 emissions by a similar number. That is according to Oskar Levander, vice president for innovation at Rolls Royce who is working on the unmanned vessels of the future.

Rolls Royce's Shore Control Centre concept envisages an on-shore nerve center from where ships are remotely steered through the high seas. Although just a concept for now, the researchers are perfecting the technologies that could make it a reality.

Their goal is fully autonomous ships by 2020. To that end, they've already commenced testing of sensor arrays in various conditions in Finland. It is all part of the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA): a USD 7 million project that includes Rolls Royce amongst other companies.

What do you think we can learn from these vehicles for everyday application in cars, trucks and buses? Thanks for sharing your thoughts with the community!

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Gareth Watson
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