Autonomous Tractors, Mining Equipment, & Construction Vehicles — Oh, My!

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Farmers stretch as the sun rises, ready for another day of work. Unlike their peers around the world, however, these farmers aren’t heading out immediately to their barns or fields. Instead, they pick up their tablets. They click through a few icons. A couple of taps and swipes later, they’ve accessed the robotic technology they need for autonomous control of their large scale field equipment. They examine data and adjust their farm’s 24-hour, round-the-clock operations while their autonomous tractors move methodically, out of sight of the homestead.

Autonomous tractors are part of new technologies that can increase productivity and efficiencies, bringing higher yields. A1-powered agricultural intelligence platforms can draw upon sophisticated computer vision, data science, and deep learning algorithms to enable farmers to make informed decisions.

Autonomy in agriculture through AI can lead to detecting early symptoms of uneven emergence, weeds, nutrient deficiencies, disease or insect infestations, water damage, or equipment issues.

Sam Bradford, a farm manager at Arcturus Downs in Australia’s Queensland state, told Bloomberg how he switched from a 120-foot wide, 16-ton spraying machine that “looks like a massive praying mantis.” Instead of blanketing the field in chemicals, now he uses 4 robots, each about the size of a truck, to kill weeds. They’re more precise, as they’re able to distinguish the dull brown color of the farm’s paddock from green foliage and to target chemicals directly at the weeds. While this saves Bradford up to 80% of his chemical costs, he says there’s another, even more important reason to switch to autonomous machinery.

“The savings on chemicals is huge, but there’s also savings for the environment from using less chemicals, and you’re also getting a better result in the end,” said Bradford. The farm is particularly sensitive over its use of chemicals, as its surrounding rivers run out to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s eastern coast.

But it’s not just farming applications where autonomous vehicles are the talk of off-highway conversations.


As the first waves of autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being tested on streets, organizations like the National Association of Fleet Administrators are scrutinizing what it will take to add autonomous operations to all kinds of vehicle management, including the spill-over to off-highway vehicles. How will industries of all kinds navigate the innovations coming — process automation, mobility, connectivity — that will usher in AVs?

Autonomous Environments — Industry, Agriculture, Construction & Mining

A growing number of people who are following the AV evolution say that industrial, agriculture, construction, and mining applications may be even better suited for autonomy in the near future than passenger vehicles. Why?

  • Off-highway automated vehicles have fewer human-machine interactions.
  • It’s simpler to fence-in areas that bound the autonomous operations, increasing safety potential.
  • There’s already a history of autonomous vehicles being deployed off-highway, such as in defense as well as commercially in large-scale agriculture and mining.
  • Automation can help offset critical labor shortages, as it’s often difficult to attract a workforce at remote locations or for a short harvest season.

The US is only one site of many around the world that’s becoming more focused on autonomous R&D. The venture-capital community and major internet players are investing heavily in China to close the global/local gap, according to McKinsey & Company. Over the last 5 years, AV and component companies have received $7 billion in funding.

Off-Highway Machinery: From Autonomous R&D Processes to Solutions

Heavy-duty construction machines like mining equipment frequently need to adapt existing machines to autonomous solutions in order to be fiscally viable. This can include hardware retrofit and adding sensors to produce machine and process feedback and knowledge of position and surroundings.

Software development of the automation controller and the graphical user interface (GUI) is essential so the machine operator can interact with the system. Limited testing occurs on the actual mining machine during development, however, due to the expense of taking the machine out of production. A presentation at !PU late last year offered the solution of using a digital twin of the actual machine through in-loop simulation. A cyber-physical modelling includes the hydraulic actuation system, robotics and vehicle dynamics / kinematics, and sensor modeling. Taking the approach of a digital twin offers opportunities to test for failure modes, and fault handling becomes easier.

Another step toward autonomous off-highway vehicles was unveiled at last year’s CES — the prototype Honda Autonomous Work Vehicle (AWV). It is essentially a rugged four-wheel-drive blank canvas that can be programmed for various off-road self-driving tasks from search and rescue and fighting forest fires to agriculture, solar panel maintenance, and snow plowing. In an interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Pete Wendt, senior planner in Advanced Product Planning for Honda R&D Americas, told how off-road challenges could mean training the autonomous system to deal with all manner of natural obstacles.

“One of the craziest use cases we came across were ranchers in Australia herding cattle,” said Wendt. “They were using two guys on off-road motorcycles, a dog, a helicopter, and a few people on horseback. Now think about a fleet of 20 autonomous work vehicles that would know if a few cows branched off. Let’s say two vehicles would start honking to drive them back into the herd.”

Another interesting off-highway autonomous application can be found in the remote mining region of Pilbara in Western Australia as gigantic haulage trucks ferrying iron ore across the harsh landscape. Interestingly, around 20% of them are driven from 1,500km away in Perth. Featured in Mining Technology, the 2008 ‘Mine of the Future’ project has moved to a model where human miners and robots work side-by-side to extract mineral resources more efficiently, safely, and sustainably. Today, driverless trucks haul over a quarter of total ore and waste material using the internet of things (IoT) and Big Data to automate machinery operation, enhance safety, predict maintenance, and monitor for any environmental breaches.

Final Thoughts

Investors are now turning to off-highway autonomous applications to open up new ROI. There’s a feeling that this opportunity has real potential as smaller players gain access to top talent and technology. Yet the advent of autonomous off-highway vehicles will necessarily continue to include humans. Even though we’ll no longer have the need or capacity to fully control machinery operations, it will continue to be important for humans to have the ability to command the machine’s functioning and to step in should it start to act unsafely.

Two texts can help us to understand the shift in society that will take place as autonomous vehicles — both on-street and off-highway — become the norm.

In Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car… and How It Will Reshape Our World, Lawrence D. Burns describes a transportation future where we “safely and conveniently use autonomous vehicles to take us where we want to go” (p. 1). The book chronicles:

  • potential calculations of profitability in autonomy
  • the difficulty in keeping the human driver’s attention once lured into the calm of an autonomous vehicle — and accidents that occurred as a result of inattention
  • fleet transportation
  • historical analyses of job displacements (such as autonomy will create)
  • the move toward commonplace understandings of self-driving technology with Tesla’s self-driving software and other automakers’ versions
  • the dilemma of disruption on established corporations, among others.

Additionally, some of the concerns about autonomy in vehicles of all kinds were addressed in the documentary, Autonomy, which had its world premiere at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin in March, 2019. It educated an audience which hasn’t had much background knowledge about self-driving technology’s remarkable origins and evolution, looking beyond the technical to ask pressing social questions:

  • What is “control?”
  • Who do we become as we relinquish control to machines?
  • Do we—and will we—define ourselves by the technology we create?
  • Are we giving up more than we realize with self-driving technology?

The next time you’re in an airport, look around. You may start to see autonomous vehicles of all kinds completing repetitive tasks. Who knows where else we’ll soon see off-highway AVs?

Featured image: screenshot of John Deere website

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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