Distant operator replacing driver
By Vladimir Yakovlev
Is it easy to drive a BelAZ dump truck loaded with 130 tonnes of ore or coal? Some say that it’s no harder than driving a passenger car…. but it’s hardly true. I know from experience, having tried to drive a giant truck made by Zhodino’s Belarusian Automobile Works some time ago.
You take an almost vertical ladder into the cabin, like climbing aboard a ship. You feel as if you’re two storeys up. Meanwhile, the accelerator and brake produce dramatic results. It’s no simple task to control a truck which is many metres long. Moreover, I was only driving on a track, without obstacles or other traffic. You can imagine the truck at work in a pit, working in formation with others, under the scoop of an excavator. It’s like a weight-lifter — straining and moaning. I realised immediately that driving a truck will never be my profession.
Not long ago, I visited BelAZ once again to try my hand at controlling a giant truck. This time, I did so remotely, via three paddles and a dashboard of dozens of indicators. On touching the handbrake, I saw my three monitors spring to life, showing a huge 130 tonne dump truck 500m away, accelerating towards me. I felt like I was controlling a remote toy car — except that this was no game.
“To manage the dump truck remotely, we’ve produced an operator station whose display board matches that of the cabin. Moreover, it has a wheel and several displays to assess the road situation. It uses audio and wireless data transfer systems and is equipped with additional video surveillance,” explains the Head of the Electronic Management System Bureau of the Belarusian Automobile Works’ Chief Designer, Yevgeny Guchek. “Special attention has also been paid to safety, as the data management system can fail or connections can be broken. In such a case, the whole system should shut off to bring the vehicle to a halt; an emergency module governs this.”
This might seem rather obvious, as plenty of mass produced passenger cars are equipped with an automated management system. However, different equipment is needed to operate a giant dump truck. The remote BelAZ dump truck was assembled 18 months ago, with its advanced model recently shown at Zhodino’s annual international scientific and practical conference, to great interest. It’s hoped that orders will flood in by the end of the year.
Why are such ‘toys’ necessary in the real world? Of course, an unmanned vehicle can work in environments which would potentially endanger a driver — and thus the vehicle. Naturally, many pits are located deep underground, filled with hazardous gases and thick dust. Moreover, extraction of mineral resources rises globally each year, while there is a shortage of qualified drivers. Pits also tend to be built far from towns, so drivers need to be brought in, with comfortable accommodation created at great cost.
Engineers continue to work to improve BelAZ vehicles, with complete automation planned for mineral resource extraction and transportation. “Like our rivals, we’re working intensively to create a smart dump truck,” explains BelAZ Chief Designer, Oleg Stepuk. “We aim not simply to ensure operation of a dump truck or loader but to create software able to make decisions for various situations. The ‘driver’ would be a dispatcher-controller able to remotely control the vehicle from hundreds of kilometres away, intervening only in cases of emergency.”