Autonomous heavy equipment growing in popularity

Price remains a barrier in some industry sectors.

Conversely, Ethernet switches enable a remote operator to monitor a machine's progress and, if need be, assume manual control. Just as a driver continually scans left and right, the remote operator can do so via real-time video. High-speed ruggedized flex cable provides connections within autonomous vehicles that enable data volume and speed and precision movement responses.

While robust and proven technologies are already being leveraged in unmanned vehicles for military, agricultural and commercial markets, price remains a barrier in some industry sectors.

Not unlike early mobile phone designs that entered the market at a price point well above most per capita means, autonomous vehicles have heretofore found niches primarily in bigger budget operations. Despite the availability of components, networks, computations, and controls, any vehicular technology?especially if used in commercial applications? generally has a lengthy development cycle before being deployed into the field.

It's not unusual for prototypes testing, and other requirements to take several years, unlike cellular phones and other consumer devices that may be developed and released within the same year. Lengthy development cycles can drive up pre-production costs.

In a slow economy, it's not unusual for commercial operations to defer capital equipment purchases or choose lower tier models when replacing outdated or broken equipment. So, the economy will also play a role in the speed of adoption of autonomous vehicles and equipment. The military has long invested in leading technologies and well knows the benefits of autonomous vehicles that agricultural and other private sectors are only beginning to recognize.

Autonomous technologies enable a more strategic work approach

Ruggedized unmanned bots and vehicles are increasingly used in dangerous bomb detection and mining operations. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones have recently made headlines for their use in surveillance and military operations.

Autonomous vehicles afford a level of safety in military and other operations that can't be achieved in manned operations. Some industry-specific applications might include:

  • Military, public safety and disaster assistance. Smaller versions of military concept UAVs are ideal for communities and police departments as an alternative to manned cars or piloted helicopters for routine patrols, traffic control, or even high-speed chases. Agile UAVs can cover more miles, more quickly, than boots on the street or even patrol cars, while streaming digital video to a central command post. UAVs can serve as tools for municipalities for crowd or crime control, even as first responders providing relief and assistance in the aftermath of hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. Autonomous vehicles can be a lifeline to deliver disaster relief, remove debris, and conduct emergency rescue operations in unsecured areas deemed too dangerous for emergency or construction vehicles to navigate.
  • Agricultural. In agricultural applications, autonomous vehicles can vastly improve productivity and reduce manpower required during planting and harvest seasons. Unmanned robo-mowers and turf mowers are already hard at work on farms and golf courses. A large acreage farm can have multiple autonomous vehicles operating simultaneously, while the owner or manager works in tandem or provides oversight. An agricultural setting can require an incredibly minute level of GPS accuracy perhaps within a half inch to safely and efficiently navigate field rows. Concurrently, the same unmanned tractor might be scanning for weeds, while also monitoring temperature, pressure and fuel levels. In addition to requiring ruggedly constructed cameras, sensors and wireless connectivity, these aggregate device inputs quickly add up to enormous high-speed gigabits of data to process and analyze in real time and convey via a network to a remote farm manager.
  • Commercial. In commercial operations, such as heavy and off-road construction and mining, autonomous vehicles can traverse tough terrains with poor light or air quality that might otherwise be inaccessible or dangerous to workers. With the right communication protocols, a manager or supervisor can operate multiple autonomous machines and oversee scheduling from a laptop computer or even a mobile device, when a job requires remote access, with real-time access to the machine's control panel and progress. Advance warnings essentially "phone home" to alert the manager when a vehicle may need servicing or refueling. Rather than returning to an equipment corral or barn, a refueling vehicle can be summoned to prevent lengthy work interruptions.

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