Manufacturing News

Driverless forklifts boost safety

Autonomous vehicle technology currently being trialled at an aluminium smelter in Tasmania is revealing a range of safety and productivity benefits for industry. Katherine Crichton writes.

FORKLIFTS are some of the most common pieces of equipment on the factory floor but they can also be one of the most dangerous.

With over 1,321 claims reported to WorkSafe Victoria relating to forklift accidents from FY 2003/4 to 2007/8, it is clear people and forklifts don’t mix.

However, forklift-related injuries look to be a thing of the past as new vehicle automation technology aims to increase workplace safety by getting people out of the forklift equation all together.

CSIRO’s ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) Centre in Brisbane has been developing driverless vehicle technologies since 2005 and has been trialling key components of the technology at Rio Tinto Aluminium’s Bell Bay Smelter in Tasmania.

Localisation and vehicle tracking technology has been incorporated into a hot metal carrier (HMC) used at the smelter site but it has wider applications for a range of industries as Dr Ash Tews, project leader and Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO’s ICT Centre explained to Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“There are many technology components in the autonomous HMC that are relevant to different industries including those that use smaller forklifts such as warehousing applications.

“While autonomous vehicles have been operating in some factories for over a decade, heavy industrial settings, such as aluminium smelters, offer a greater challenge – and opportunity – to test the technology and look at what is required to make it work efficiently in industrial applications.

“The goal is to have autonomous vehicles conducting operations that are repetitive, hazardous or expensive for people to undertake,” Tews said.

Visions of autonomy

The first part of the project involved automating a HMC by adding programmable controls and sensors for onboard systems monitoring and vehicle control as well as scanning laser rangefinders and pan-tilt-zoom cameras for navigation, obstacle detection and crucible docking.

Because HMCs work both internally and outdoors, with each environment presenting different challenges such as shifting weather patterns, infrastructure, other mobile vehicles and of course people, one of the first stages of the project was to address the issues of safety, reliability and repeatability.

This included implementing a range of controls such as physical interlocks and e-stop technology in the event of an emergency.

The HMC’s localisation system, based on laser scanners, a steering encoder and vehicle odometry, data from these sensors, along with a map of the site, can be used to locate the vehicle to within 20cm at all times.

Vision-based localisation using cameras is used to detect and localise from infrastructure edges and 2D horizontal and 3D vision with forward looking laser scanners are used on the HMC for obstacle detection. Webcams are also used on the vehicle and around the site to track and classify dynamic objects.

Cameras are also placed off board the vehicle to detect, track and identify static and dynamic objects in the environment.

At CSIRO’s Brisbane site, its 20t HMC has conducted hundreds of hours of autonomous operations indoors and outdoors, along narrow roadways and in open areas. Recently, it was showcased in several hours of continuous operation during the site’s open days held earlier in the year.

Even though the HMC carrier at Rio’s Bell Bay site is not fully automated in regards to operation, the ultimate goal is to develop an entirely autonomous HMC.

Aluminium smelters provide the perfect application for this technology as carting crucibles of hot metal from point A to B up to 80 or more times a day/shift is ripe for optimisation, and would provide a real competitive advantage.

Manufacturers’ Monthly understands that once the localisation and tracking functions are working to the desired performance level, then the next step will be to fully assess the potential for full automation and non human operation.

In the future

Even though the use of autonomous technology has many safety and efficiency benefits, particularly in dangerous and repetitive industrial environments, the use of automated vehicles such as HMCs is not widespread, however Tews believes this will soon change.

“The capacity exists already to integrate this technology into industrial vehicles like forklifts, so we could even see the first prototype systems within the next couple of years.”

Tews hopes that in the next five years ‘off the shelf’ autonomous vehicles will begin to infiltrate the market, but says in the meantime “piece-by-piece” integration of autonomous vehicle technology such as the localisation and navigation technology components will bring the technology into the mainstream.

“This part of the technology is attractive to industry as they want to know where their assets/vehicles are on site. Even though it is only a small piece of the autonomous vehicle package, it is easy to commercialise and much cheaper.

“The complete autonomous vehicle package is a little more futuristic because there’s big money involved – a 20t forklift isn’t cheap – and if you want to look into turning that into a robot that adds even more cost.”

Even though cost may be a barrier at the moment, Tews says as the price of components comes down and it starts making its way into mainstream sectors such as the commercial car market, autonomous vehicle technology will increasingly be integrated into a wider range of applications.

“We are already seeing some cars available with reversing sensors and forward looking infra-red cameras designed to detect animals and people on the side of roads.

“Industrial environments using mobile robots just makes a lot of sense and as the vehicles themselves become more predictable and reliable, we will see more and more autonomous vehicles operating meaningfully in environments where people are walking around or actually driving other vehicles.”

A spokesperson for the Rio Tinto Alcan Bell Bay smelter involved in the project said the business was pleased to be supporting CSIRO in developing this technology, particularly given its potential to improve safety and efficiency of various site operations.

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