We are familiar with the concept of AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning) as applied to robotics, often in a “coming in the future” format. But the future is coming sooner than expected if companies like Volvo have a say. And an enabler will be the growth of 5G communications.

The Volvo Construction Equipment division has demonstrated a fully autonomous, battery-electric prototype, the LX03, of what they claim is the first real-world example of a self-learning concept wheel loader with the brains to make decisions, perform tasks, and interact with humans. It is also the first time ever a LEGO Technic model has been turned into a real machine. While not commercially available, engineers expect that valuable insights from the LX03 will feed into applications for today and tomorrow.

The prototype LX03 has been built by a dedicated team of engineers and programmers from Volvo CE sites in Eskilstuna, Sweden and Konz, Germany, in collaboration with the design team in Gothenburg, Sweden. It is a 5-ton wheel loader that has been developed as a modular concept, with the capability of being made larger or smaller with just one or two changes to the manufacturing process. It also shares its driveline with the L25 Electric, making it a zero emission, low-noise machine with a runtime of up to eight hours depending on its application.

It is designed to be a smart and safe worker, equipped with a brain that has the capacity to adapt to different scenarios, make decisions in real-time and most importantly collaborate with humans. It can be programmed by customers to complete heavy, repetitive, or dangerous tasks, reducing the need for a human on site.

With just the simple change of an attachment, a wheel loader is required to carry out a multitude of different tasks, from scooping material into trucks and lifting almost anything to travelling around a job site. Depending on the size, they are also required to work across diverse segments from landscaping to mining. An autonomous wheel loader needs to keep its balance, so the wheels are packed with sensors, almost like the feet of a human being. While providing superb traction, it also lets the LX03 set the direction of the rim-pull of the wheels, when working in a pile for example.

The LX03’s scissor frame is a unique feature that allows the machine greater freedom of movement and increased efficiency. It also offers a unique bucket sequence whereby the bucket can be filled by simply lowering the rear part, or counterweight, of the machine, requiring no work from the loading unit at the front and providing improved stability during the loading process.

When it comes to emptying the load, the counterweight, which also doubles as the battery pack, can then by lifted off the ground allowing the bucket to reach much further over the load receiver than a conventional machine. This motion pattern improves energy efficiency, because it not only allows the machine to use its own weight to create greater lifting power, but also allows for larger bucket fills thereby reducing the loading cycle.

Volvo Construction Equipment is also trial testing a remote-controlled High-lift wheel loader over a 5G network in a bid to develop safer, more productive timber processes and explore 5G’s potential as an enabler for automation. The unique research project, Remote Timber, is a collaboration between Volvo CE and the telecom operator Telia, timber and paper manufacturer SCAMid University SwedenSkogforsk, and Biometria.

The preliminary tests have demonstrated that it is possible to tele-operate a Volvo L180 High-lift wheel loader, hundreds of kilometers away. By using a closed 5G network, low latency has proven to be a major advantage, allowing operators to perform the sensitive process of picking, loading, and organizing logs remotely.

Tele-operated forestry is expected to deliver improved productivity by allowing one operator to work across multiple – and sometimes isolated – sites around the world. It is also expected to make it both safer, by removing humans from potentially hazardous environments, and more sustainable, through more efficient logistics flows as the loading and unloading of timber can also be done during the night.

An important aim of this research project is to explore exactly what is required from an operator perspective in making tele-operation a user-friendly and efficient experience. Because each load of timber can be so varied – from an unwieldly pile of heavy logs through to just a few short pieces of wood – it is vital that the lifting process is carried out with pinpoint accuracy and incredibly precise handling.

As a result, there are currently a number of connected cameras and sensors located at strategic points around the machine that transmit real-time data via the Telia 5G network back to the control station. The test will therefor both explore how to mature the technology and gather vital feedback from the operators on the optimum placement of those cameras for handling precision.

Volvo CE has for the past few years been exploring the potential for tele-operation across a variety of segments from mining to urban construction, with this project testing the technology in its most challenging application yet. By remote-controlling processes like timber lifting – which are currently too complex to be fully automated – tele-operation becomes an important enabler for automation, allowing for a more gradual integration of automated processes for customers.

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