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Use of autonomous vehicles in mining and farming touted at CES 2021

January 20, 2021  - By

After years of testing and hype, not a lot of companies can say there are real applications for autonomous technology. However, at this year’s virtual CES 2021 trade show, both Caterpillar and John Deere, two companies known for their tractors and heavy equipment, showcased autonomous machines that are being used worldwide in farming and mining projects.

Photo: Caterpillar

Photo: Caterpillar

Deerfield, Ill.-based Caterpillar, a first-time exhibitor at CES this year, said it has been involved in autonomy and use of GPS for more than two decades. “We were an early adopter of GPS when there were few satellites in the sky,” said Denise Johnson, company group president, resource industries. “We have 350 autonomous trucks operating 24-7 on three continents.”

The company’s autonomous vehicles, in addition to other technology, are being used around the clock in the Kearl Oil Sands project in Alberta, Canada.

“We are using autonomy primarily in mining operations in harsh environments. These [vehicles] are operating 24-7, with no loss time incidents,” said Bill Dears, Caterpillar worldwide sales and marketing manager. “We also track people underground with cameras and radar.”

In addition to production enhancement, safety is a factor in mining operations because of operator fatigue — something that is precluded by autonomous mining equipment, Dears said.

Agriculture uses variety of sensors, including GNSS

To Moline, Ill.-based John Deere, exhibiting at the trade show for the third time, agriculture is a high-tech industry that uses GPS, self-driving tractors, artificial intelligence and a multitude of sensors. The company rolled out its first self-driving tractors nearly 20 years ago, said Jahmy Hindman, John Deere CTO.

Photo: John Deere

Photo: John Deere

The company won the CES Innovation Award for one of its tractor and combine product lines. “Both our planter and tractor have GPS and antennas to know where to drive and where exactly fertilizer [is to be placed],” Hindman said. “These tractors are self-propelled, with accuracy augmented with [real-time kinematic] sub-inch accuracy for the planters in a field.”

Among other requirements, Hindman said that tractors have to drive in a straight line, plant the required amount seeds and position them at the right depth. “When a tractor drives in a very straight line, the burden is off of the farmer. The yields increase—this is the way we see the progression of automation,” he said. “We are excited about 5G and its lower latency and high bandwidth. It opens up a lot of opportunity.”

Organizers roll out Indy Autonomous Challenge race car

At the virtual CES, representatives from the Indy Autonomous Challenge unveiled the Dallara IL-15 race car that will be used in a head-to-head race around the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Oct. 23.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge, organized by Energy Systems Network and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, pits 500 university students, developing autonomous vehicle technology, against each other for a $1.5 million prize.

Logo: Indy Autonomous Challenge

Logo: Indy Autonomous Challenge

Organizers say the speeds are estimated to be as much as 200 mph around the 2.5-mile track, for 20 laps, which enables researchers to evaluate how autonomous vehicle technology works in extreme conditions. They say that the goal of the race is to advance the implementation of autonomous vehicles and advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), much like the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge.

The race track has been the scene of much innovation throughout the years, said Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president. “Firestone tests tire technology there and that data transfers to our cars. One of the first conversations we had with Roger Penske [after Penske Entertainment bought the speedway] was about the autonomous challenge,” he said.

IAC sponsors include ADLINK, Ansys, Aptiv, AutonomouStuff, Bridgestone, CU-ICAR, Dallara, Indiana Economic Development Corp., Microsoft, New Eagle, PWR, RTI, Schaeffler and Valvoline.

Mobileye plans to test autonomous fleets in four cities

Intel subsidiary Mobileye plans to launch autonomous vehicle fleet testing in Detroit, Paris, Shanghai and Toyko. The announcement, made at CES by CEO Amnon Shashua, said that the company also plans to test in New York City, pending regulatory approval.

The company also plans to use in-house-built lidar sensors, while continuing to champion its camera-based testing. “We are using crowd-sourced data through the Cloud to build high-definition maps at scale,” Shashua said. “Thousands of product vehicles are sending us data.”

Shashua addressed a moderator’s question that cameras alone cannot be the technology of choice for autonomous vehicles. “The camera first is crucial from a technology and business point of view. We have to find out what is acceptable failure for Level 4 autonomy. Camera-only is ideal, but pushing the envelope for driver-assistance systems,” he said. “Consumer AV will take place in the 2025 timeframe. [Eventually], we can build lidar and radar to the same performance levels as camera systems. Lidar and radar can be added later for redundancy, but only for Level 4.”

Shashua said getting to Level 4 could take a decade, but that would be unsustainable unless there are government-funded projects to keep companies afloat. “By 2025, a subsystem will be good enough for consumers. Regulation is critical and sometimes it’s difficult to leap to a consumer level,” he said.

Not everyone believes what Mobileye is testing constitutes “driverless” status. To Alain Kornhauser Princeton University professor and transportation program director, who was head of the university’s team during the 2005 DARPA Challenge, not many companies are capable of full driverless capability.

“Unfortunately, I still see all of this as simply ‘eye candy’ to sell something that actually has no intention of delivering what it is implying. I still claim that the business case is zero, doesn’t exist, for personally-owned autonomous vehicles,” Kornhauser said in his Smart Driving Cars weekly newsletter. “Mobileye is nowhere close to being able to operate safely on most roads, let alone all roads. Thus, the consumer market has zero opportunity to scale.”

Kornhauser said that driverless testing is being conducted only in one place, Phoenix, by Waymo. “Neither Tesla nor Mobileye are driverless anywhere. They both require on-board human driver supervision,” he said. “That’s why they are only self-driving [tests].”

In other CES news:

  • GM CEO Mary Barra unveiled a single-seat electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) concept aircraft. The aircraft will be developed for future use as an air taxi. Barra briefly mentioned that the company’s Super Cruise self-driving technology will be integrated into 22 car models in a few years. The company also rolled out an electric vehicle for deliveries that can travel 250 miles on a charge and a motorized pallet for deliveries that can be tracked.
  • Photo: Mercedes-Benz

    Photo: Mercedes-Benz

  • The Mercedes-Benz’ MBUX Hyperscreen, rolled out at CES, evaluates map data, surroundings and provides information about landmarks along a route, said Sajjad Khan, company CTO and member of the board of management. The new map feature, called Mercedes Travel Knowledge, allows a passenger or driver to ask a question as they drive by a landmark (“hey, Mercedes, what can you tell me about this building?”). The MBUX Hyperscreen is available in the new S-Class cars.
  • HERE Technologies introduced a mapping-as-a-service platform at CES. The platform is targeted to businesses wanting to create custom map datasets for advanced analytics and services, the company said. Some use cases include industrial yard mapping, leveraging probe data from private vehicle fleets in order to create or update a map.• A virtual CES is hard to get used to. After more than 20 years of covering the massive trade show in person, covering press conferences and conducting interviews online was sometimes a challenge. Sometimes the press conferences did not have question-and-answer sessions, or canned answers given to executives by public relations people. This doesn’t happen much during an in-person interview. In addition, trying to chat with “booth” personnel online was cumbersome and often those requests for information were ignored.

About the Author:


Kevin Dennehy is GPS World’s editor for location-based services, writing a monthly column for the LBS Insider newsletter. Dennehy has been writing about the location industry for more than 20 years. He covered GPS and location technology for Global Positioning & Navigation News for seven years. His articles on the wireless industry have been published in both consumer and trade magazines and newspapers.

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