Swedish giant demonstrates driverless wheel loader and articulated hauler research concepts working together at its Xploration Forum event
Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) demonstrated the future of autonomous heavy machinery at a special event in its manufacturing facility at Eskilstuna, Sweden, with unmanned wheel loader and articulated hauler prototypes performing a series of tasks in front of the international press.
The event, called Xploration Forum, was a showcase of the innovative technologies the Swedish giant is working on for the future, with completely automated machines forming the highlight.
The demonstration machines unveiled to customers, members of the international press, government representatives and academics at the Xploration Forum, were standard Volvo products – a L120 wheel loader and an A25F articulated hauler – which have been upgraded with autonomous technology. Once the solution is finalised, this technology could be applied to other products in Volvo CE’s range, said officials from the company.
“The demonstration machines were programmed to work together and carry out a specific set of actions on a pre-defined route,” explained Jenny Elfsberg, director of emerging technologies at Volvo CE. “The machines can perform the same task over and over again, along a fixed route, for a relatively long period of time. But it’s still early days for this technology; we are working on developing solutions that have the required safety and performance levels that the market will accept.
“There is still a long way to go so there are no plans for industrialisation at this stage,” she added. “Currently these prototype machines don’t communicate with each other and machine-to-machine communication technology – where machines ‘talk’ to one another and to a central control point – is crucial when it comes to avoiding collisions and facilitating an efficient flow of equipment.”
In the demonstration, the prototype autonomous wheel loader and articulated hauler worked together impressively, with the wheel loader filling the prototype articulated hauler with aggregate, which then dumped its load at a another section of Volvo CE’s demonstration site.
In a one-hour comparison it was found that the autonomous wheel loader could reach the equivalent of 70% of that of a skilled operator’s productivity levels when loading and unloading. The biggest gain, though, was in safety.
“Autonomous machines will increase safety in hazardous working environments and eliminate the possibility of accidents caused by human error,” said Elfsberg. “They will also perform repetitive tasks more efficiently and precisely than a human operator and, because machines will be operated in the most efficient way, customers will benefit from improved performance, productivity, fuel efficiency and durability. In the future you could also potentially have one operator for three or four machines, increasing productivity and further decreasing costs. Looking ahead, I imagine that autonomous machines will be smaller and more robust. There will be no need for a cab or suspension.”
The autonomous technology machines in the demonstration are also being tested on the ground in ‘real’ working conditions, Volvo CE said. The wheel loader is already in service with a Volvo CE customer at an asphalt plant in Sweden.
Volvo CE has been working on autonomous machine research for more than a decade. Its focus on futuristic technology such as autonomous machines is fueling the development of mid-term innovations at the company. For example, earlier this year the company launched Volvo Co-Pilot, a system that offers a range of intelligent machine services – Load Assist, Dig Assist, Compact Assist and Pave Assist – to help operators deliver higher quality outcomes, in less time and with less effort.
“We are starting to see systems that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or control primary functions,” said Elfsberg. “In the future we will see increased machine autonomy and the operator will act more in a supervisory capacity. This will provide less stressful, more interesting work for operators, with perhaps several machines being controlled remotely by one operator. Of course some tasks are so complicated that you really need to feel what you’re doing, and in those cases we will still need operators controlling the machines from inside the cab.”