Cat® Semi-Autonomous Construction Equipment

Coming Soon to a Job Site Near You

Cat® Semi-Autonomous Construction Equipment
Cat® Semi-Autonomous Construction Equipment



Tech watch

Building on the success of its autonomous and remote-control equipment for mining, Caterpillar is now well down the autonomy path for construction equipment. In this article, Joe Forcash of Cat® Robotics outlines the development of a semi-autonomous Compact Track Loader (CTL) that was recently showcased for the first time.

By Joe Forcash, Engineering Manager, Cat Robotics

A sign of things to come made its debut at the recent Cat Trial 12, a machine demo event held a Caterpillar’s Tinaja Hills Proving Grounds in Arizona. The public and members of the press got a first look at a little machine that heralds big changes for the construction industry.

Except for a set of colored lights on the cab roof, this Cat 299D3 Compact Track Loader looks like a stock production machine. And it is except for one key difference—it can be run both by remote control and semi-autonomously (with no human intervention) for a good portion of its work cycle. That blue light shining on the cab shows that it’s running in unstaffed mode, with no one inside.

The project got its start two years ago when Caterpillar acquired Marble Robotics of San Francisco. The company had developed small delivery robots for use in dynamic, complex environments. By combining their nimble technology with elements of Cat Command autonomy and remote-control systems, Caterpillar was able to jumpstart the development of lightweight and cost-effective autonomous equipment.

On-site Remote Console

The goal driving the project is to provide the right autonomy solutions for construction customers. That means delivering semi-autonomous and autonomous equipment which can:

·   Be produced at a much lower cost than current Cat mining technology allows.

·   Function in the complex, dynamic environment of a construction job site.

·   Work at jobsites with no existing data communications infrastructure.

This last point is critical. Where mine sites may operate for decades, construction sites typically only operate for a matter of months or a year. As such, construction companies can’t justify the investment in extensive site infrastructure. They need to be able to get on-site quickly, get the job done efficiently and move on.

Cat Robotics solves this issue by enabling the machine to read and follow the customer’s site-plan design file. The technology used in the new semi-autonomous CTL brings that design file into a back-office system and sends it to a simple tablet controller. The tablet connects directly to the CTL, which basically has its own Wi-Fi hot spot. This system allows a job site to be set up very quickly, with no need for a dedicated data network.

Combining Remote Control with Autonomy

As a semi-autonomous machine, the demo CTL combines remote control with semi-autonomous operation. It enables an operator to control the machine via the tablet interface while picking up material—a job that requires a high level of precision. Once loaded, the operator assigns a drop point and the machine navigates there on its own. It then leaves the material and navigates back to the pickup area, where the operator takes control again.

This allows one operator to control up to four machines at once. By taking over the monotonous, repetitive part of the operation—running back and forth from pickup zone to drop point—it makes the work much more engaging. Plus, it makes the best use of the operator’s presence, eliminating idle time.

Leveraging Built-In Technologies

Cat D-Series CTLs like the 299D3 already have extensive control-by-wire capabilities, so they lend themselves readily to automation. Existing automated capabilities now used by operators in the cab, such as self-leveling with forks, return-to-dig and return-to-lift, can be effectively integrated with remote-control and autonomous capabilities.

The new autonomy layer takes advantage of this built-in automation “DNA.” Then, it adds the ability to navigate from a design map and use lidar, cameras and other sensors to move safely around a busy jobsite. Building on an existing production machine, rather than creating a whole new machine, simplifies the development of autonomous equipment.

Dealing with Dynamic Job Sites

That autonomy layer has a big job to do. Its onboard sensor and intelligence systems have to take in lots of information from the jobsite, then process it quickly to ensure safe, efficient operation.

For example, the machine needs to be able to distinguish between inanimate obstacles and live people. Using something called “dynamic path planning,” the system can quickly calculate a way to go around stationary obstacles.

In addition, the system is intelligent enough to know when there’s a person in its path. In that case, it will either give the person more space when planning a new course, or it will simply slow down or stop. It will do the same for light vehicles such as pickup trucks.

There’s one more step to the integration of autonomy into a construction jobsite. While the machine can be programmed to run as safely as possible, site processes also need to be revisited to maximize both production and safety.

People need to keep somewhat farther away from autonomous equipment. If they try to work as closely as they do to staffed equipment, they’ll force the machine to limit its speed, reducing production efficiency.

Shaping the Job Sites of The Future

Caterpillar is currently conducting field trials at customer jobsites to work through these issues. We’re learning how best to integrate autonomy into specific applications, and we’ll be incorporating customer and jobsite feedback into the eventual commercial releases of autonomous construction equipment.

One factor we’re exploring in our field trials is the expanded skills operators will need to bring to the automated jobsite. As autonomous equipment takes over simple, repetitive tasks and those in potentially hazardous environments, it will help fill the gaps behind today’s labor shortages.

Even better, it will free up equipment operators to build their skill sets to take on more jobs. Remote-control operators will need to be able to jump from machine to machine or even from site to site, so they’ll need to know how to run different machines in a variety of applications. And as new autonomous equipment comes online, they’ll need the ability to act more as equipment managers, rather than machine operators, overseeing a number of machines working at once.

These expanded skill sets will not only make construction work more engaging and attractive to a new generation of employees, but they will also make them even more valuable to their employers.

It Pays to Look Ahead

Construction equipment technology is advancing day by day. It pays to look ahead and stay informed on the latest developments, even if you’re not jumping into remote-control or autonomous equipment anytime soon. The more you know about what’s coming, the better you’ll be able to adapt to these changes when you’re ready.

Cat Trial 12



Cat Command for Construction

Cat Command for Construction

For more information on other developments in remote-control and autonomous technologies for construction:

Explore Cat Command for Construction  

If you’re ready to dive into these exciting technologies, get in touch with your local Cat dealer, who can show you what’s available today and help you get started with technologies that make sense for your business.


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