There is a race underway, amongst dozens of tech companies, to bring autonomous or “self-driving” technology to trucks.
There are many notable benefits of autonomous technology, such as accident reduction and cost savings, and companies are striving to be first to market and win this race.
While most self-driving vehicles companies are focused on highway or city driving, their deployments are still years away and face regulatory uncertainty in some jurisdictions. However, of the major companies trying to be the first to market, Maryland-based Robotic Research (RR) and its commercial division, RR.AI, is the only major autonomy company focused on bringing its autonomous technology to serve off-road trucking and mining markets today.
Formed in 2002, Robotic Research began with a single client in mind: the U.S. Department of Defense.
For over two decades, RR has applied autonomous technology to solve some of the gnarly problems which the military faces in 21st century combat.
As it happens, some of the same problems faced by the military are also the same problems now facing miners.
While most modern technology is built for the modern, comfortable world, it is typically not well-suited to operate in harsh conditions like those faced in the world of mining. RR’s technologies, however, have been designed for and proven in these environments.
RR is currently integrating its technology into heavy duty Class 8 trucks and will also serve as the base platform in providing autonomous haulage systems.
Class 8 trucks provide haulage of a variety of materials in and around mining operations. Short “shuttle runs” is a typical operation in mining and one that RR.AI believes is ideally suited for autonomy.
“In speaking with customers, we believe that shuttle runs in an off-road environment adds a lot of savings to their bottom line and will enhance safety,” said Don Lefeve, RR’s vice-president for corporate affairs.
Globally, mining operations have displayed a growing appetite for adopting technology. While mining was one of the first industries to embrace autonomous technology, the technology provided is reliant on GPS, which is troublesome particularly in pit mining. Other problems have also materialized, such as “vendor lock.”
RR’s approach is to be vehicle agnostic, making it a solution suitable for companies that have a mixed fleet of vehicles. Increasingly, companies are seeking technology from a variety of sources and adapting it to their sites, always with an eye toward safer and more efficient operations.
In fact, mining companies are trying to increase safety through the removal of humans, and technology offers this promise.
RR’s self-driving “kit” (named Auto-Drive) is currently integrated into nearly 80 U.S. Army logistics trucks. The company is also integrating AutoDrive into Class 8 trucks for off-road operations, and the same kit can be easily integrated into heavy haul vehicles as well.
“Working with the military for over two decades, our company has integrated our autonomous technology on a lot of vehicles and tested in very tough conditions,” said Lefeve.
“Because we have integrated on many vehicles, we had to make our autonomous driving system very agile and adaptable to new vehicles, new environments, and different types of roads, which include no roads at all,” Lefeve added.
Mining also shares another problem with the larger trucking market in that companies cannot find enough drivers.
The trucking industry is facing a massive truck driver shortage of 80,000 drivers according to the American trucking associations.
The truck driver shortage is driven by a combination of factors including baby boomer retirements, high industry turnover, and drug and alcohol violations.
“This truck driver shortage is felt across all segments of the trucking industry, including mining, and is a problem for many industries who rely upon trucks to move their goods,” Lefeve said.
This is an issue that Lefeve knows well. Before coming to RR, Lefeve was the president and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA), the largest association of commercial truck driving schools (producing 80,000 truck drivers annually).
As autonomous trucks can help solve the problem of the labor shortage, working in remote locations presents other unique technology challenges such as working in areas without GPS.
In an underground mining operation or development property where coverage may be unreliable or lacking, we would all still be using map books and a compass.
A key driver of navigation is GPS itself. GPS provides a stable position for a user anywhere on Earth. Combined with a database of roads and the goal location, GPS navigation can accurately lead a person to their destination, as long as the user can receive that signal.
“When designing a system for the military, you have a large set of requirements and one of the first things you realize is that you cannot rely on having GPS or event communications,” Lefeve added. “AutoDrive was specifically designed to operate under these conditions, which are many of the same conditions that mining encounters.”
Autonomous driving systems rely upon maps and one of the technologies to let the vehicle know where it is with respect to the map is called localization. RR.AI has taken its localization technology used for autonomous trucks and created its own stand-alone product: WarLoc.
“Imagine you are going to a sporting event and plan to meet up with someone, you can call that person when you get there and ask where they are and try to co-ordinate that way,” said Kyle Smith, RR’s vice-president for advanced programs.
“However, modern smartphones can also share the position with a trusted person. That position will appear on the user’s map, and they can navigate themselves to meet up. No interaction between the people needed, other than opting to share the position information in the phone,” Smith added.
What can we do if there were no GPS, for example in an underground environment? This is where WarLoc comes in. WarLoc, short for Warfighter Localization, provides a position in GPS-denied environments. This device, worn on a user’s boot, connects to a user’s smartphone and shares that position information with others. WarLoc provides a GPS-like position solution that can be used for navigation or any other purpose. It provides position whether the wearer is actively looking at their device or not. It is designed to operate in the harshest environments for the U.S. military.
WarLoc offers three major advantages according to RR: (i) It creates an efficiency boost because anyone can know where anyone else is within an environment just by glancing at a smartphone. (ii) If someone gets lost, it provides a record of how the person got into that situation that they can then backtrack to exit. (iii) It also offers a safety device in case the person is unresponsive or cut off from the outside world, since all others will know where to look for the wearer. This technology can be adapted from the battlefield to the mine site and is designed to function in harsh environments.
Gordon Feller is a freelance mining expert.