The New Workhorses

Autonomous Vehicles Enter the Workplace
Written by Nate Hendley

There has been much talk recently about vehicles that can drive themselves. Much of this attention has been focused on self-driving cars, designed to take passengers to and fro. Self-driving cars, however, are still largely a dream and remain in the research and development phase.

While they have not received nearly as much attention, autonomous work vehicles are already in service and proving their worth. Some mines and manufacturing plants are using autonomous vehicles to move materials and supplies. Self-driving shuttles that transport passengers on short journeys are also a reality.

In January 2018, for example, Suncor Energy made history when it announced the phased introduction of a fleet of autonomous haulage systems (AHS) vehicles at its North Steepbank Mine in Alberta. Suncor tested the vehicles extensively for four years before their launch to ensure both effectiveness and safety and discovered a plethora of benefits compared to the existing system. The autonomous vehicles were found to be more efficient, safer, and cheaper to run.

“Autonomous trucks operate predictably and employ a suite of safety features like prescribed route mapping and obstacle detection systems,” states a January 30, 2018, Suncor press release. “Over the next six years, the company expects to deploy more than 150 autonomous haul trucks in the full program, which will be one of the largest investments in electric autonomous vehicles in the world.”

Suncor believes its AHS vehicle fleet will reduce machine/human interactions, which in turn will reduce workplace accidents. There might be something to this; Suncor is using AHS vehicles from Japanese firm Komatsu which boasts about its safety record in this segment.

Komatsu deployed a first-of-its-kind self-driving vehicle at a Chilean copper mine in 2008. At present, roughly nine mines around the world utilize about 150 Komatsu autonomous vehicles to move various materials.

Komatsu claims there have been zero workplace injuries involving its AHS vehicles since their commercial introduction eleven years ago. It achieved this admirable safety record by outfitting its autonomous work vehicles with some of the most sophisticated computer, sensor, and high-precision global navigation satellite positioning systems (HP-GNSS) systems on the planet. An operator can control a fleet from a centralized location over a wireless network.

During their time in service, these vehicles “have moved more than two billion tons of surface material … [and] reduced load and haul unit costs by as much as fifteen percent over manned operations. Some mines have achieved a fifteen percent increase in truck utilization, while also reducing downtime and increasing production,” adds Komatsu.

The company claims that automatic controls decrease the incidence of sudden speed and direction changes. This can lead to a forty percent increase in tire longevity, versus vehicles driven by human operators. It also means lower fuel use and fewer emissions.

Komatsu solidified its commitment to autonomous work vehicles by setting up a global center of excellence (CoE) for autonomous haulage systems (AHS) in Tucson, Arizona, this spring.

“The CoE team will be responsible for AHS strategy, planning, marketing, sales support, and training; enabling Komatsu to respond faster to customers’ needs in the rapidly expanding autonomous environment,” explains a Komatsu press release.

Small-size autonomous work vehicles are also showing up inside factories. Otto Motors, a division of Kitchener, Ontario-based Clearpath Robotics, is a world leader in this field.

Otto Motors makes a series of self-driving vehicles intended for use in factories, warehouses, and the like. “Otto navigates spaces just like a person does. It maintains a map of the environment in its memory and uses visual reference points to always know its position. No guides, infrastructure or predefined paths required,” explains Otto Motors literature.

The vehicles range from the Otto 100 which has a payload of 100 kilograms to the Otto 1500 with a 1500 kilogram payload. The Otto 100 can navigate in a fully autonomous fashion to move containers and boxes. The unit features Lidar, 360-degree indicator lighting, and an all-metal chassis.

On April 8, 2019, Otto Motors released the Otto 750, capable of moving pallet-sized loads. “The 750-kg payload is important because of how factories typically transport materials. The three standard methods each have different maximum payloads: 100 kg for a cart pushed by a human, 750 kg for a pump truck, and 1500 kg for a forklift. Plenty of solutions have been developed for payloads at the high and low ends of the range, but only a few existed in the middle,” continues the press release.

The company also developed a product called the Otto Omega, a self-driving lift truck or forklift. Guided by artificial intelligence (AI), the Otto Omega was designed “to reduce material handling costs, increase process throughput, and improve plant safety, Otto Omega is the easiest, safest, and most reliable automated lift truck for busy factories and warehouses,” adds the press release.

The Otto Omega’s main capabilities include autonomous deliveries across factory floors and semi-autonomous loading and unloading. The unit can ‘learn’ new tasks via software updates and “receives orders, reports on its status and notifies human operators of issues in real-time. It is always collecting data from its surroundings and learning from human operators while communicating with a centralized control system,” says Otto Motors.

Beyond industrial environments, autonomous vehicles are also being used to transport passengers on short drives. In September 2015, French company Navya launched a vehicle called the Autonom Shuttle, a fully electric self-driving unit with no steering wheel or pedals. At 4.75 metres long, 2.11 metres wide, and 2.65 metres high with an electric engine, the shuttle can move fifteen passengers at one time and resembles a passenger van.

“The vehicle is equipped with the latest generation in sensors to enable it to find its way around and navigate effectively. Lidar, cameras, GPS RTK, IMU, and odometry enable the Autonom Shuttle to position itself to within a few centimeters from the desired target and to identify obstacles on the road,” states Navya.

The company has produced roughly 100 Autonom Shuttles and sold eighty-nine of them to clients in seventeen countries. Navya claims its product will boost mobility and quality of life, decrease congestion, and ease parking woes and pollution in cities. At private locales, the Autonom Shuttle will boost productivity, air quality, and security.

The firm also introduced the Autonom Cab in November 2017, but this vehicle is still being tested. Navya appears to be doing well as a company. In March 2019 it reported 2018 sales of around 19 million Euros, up from 10.2 million Euros from the previous year.

Before you start planning a cross-country trip on an autonomous shuttle, keep in mind that the real-world applications of such vehicles are pretty limited at present. The Autonom Shuttle has a maximum speed of twenty-five kilometres per hour and limited battery life. It is only being used right now for trips of very short duration. In 2017, for example, Navya deployed a pair of its shuttles at the University of Michigan, to move students from a North Campus Research Complex to the Lurie Engineering Center. The route was about two kilometres. A Navya operation in Las Vegas currently covers a one-kilometre route.

On the other hand, if they perform too well, autonomous vehicles might mean less work for humans. Suncor Energy’s adoption of driverless vehicles at its Alberta oil sands mine is expected to mean that roughly four hundred jobs will be lost.

Despite these disadvantages, expect interest in autonomous work vehicles to increase, as the technology improves and companies look for new ways to perform tasks in a speedy, safe manner that boosts the bottom line.

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