Sandvik’s automated loader is so precise it can make it through a glass maze

Over the last few years, self driving cars have been truly hogging the limelight. Essentially every major publication – whether technology-focused or not – has run tens of headlines heralding the advent of the fully driverless vehicles, an event that could usher in a transport revolution, a machine takeover, and a radical rethinking of jobs such as the taxi driver and the trucker. Silicon Valley’s tech giants – such as Google, Uber, and Tesla – have been spearheading this effort, which for the most part has still remained at a conceptual or prototypal level (and has experienced some setbacks, such as recent collisions with pedestrians.)

Still, it is worth underlining that autonomous vehicles are not only the stuff of futuristic utopias and high-tech power players : in fact, global engineering group Sandvik has been deploying automated loaders and trucks in real-life mines for over two decades. They are effective, precise, and – most importantly – safe, with zero accident involving people so far.

Recently, the global engineering company has launched its new generation of automated heavy vehicles. To put it to the test – and to showcase its new capabilities – the company trialled the new generation vehicle not in the bowels of Earth, but on the surface. How? Remember that old say about a bull taking a stroll in a china shop?

New, stunning footage shows Sandvik’s new generation vehicle, the 11-meter, 38-tonne Sandvik mining loader Sandvik LH514 comfortably and autonomously finding its way through a 1740-square-meter glass labyrinth. (That was 589 glass walls.)

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The change of setting (which could not be more different from the sturdy, rocky mines the vehicle was designed to navigate across) nevertheless did not perturb the efficient machine, which maneuvered through narrow aisles, hairpin bends, and dead ends, without even scuffing the maze’s fragile glass walls. The loader’s precise laser scanners, odometers, gyroscopes and angle sensors steered it clear of the brittle surfaces all around it.

Far from simply being a stunt, Sandvik’s automation-powered vehicles – loaders and trucks – are able to learn their way around a mine tunnel from the first time they enter it, and to do so in an optimised, safe way. That is thanks to each vehicle’s set of lasers, which aid it by scanning and mapping put a viable path, and recording it. That is enhanced by Sandvik’s home-brewed patented algorithms, while the vehicle’s t sensors and gyroscopes allow it to navigate effectively even in the deep of a mine, out of the reach of a GPS network.

At the end of the demo, in order to prove that the risk to break everything down to smithereens was real all along, Sandvik’s CEO Björn Rosengren drove the vehicle through the labyrinth’s walls, instantly smashing them into thousands of shards and pieces.

“Sandvik’s self-driving loaders have been in use for more than 20 years, with over 2 million operating hours underground,” said Jouni Koppanen, Senior Systems Engineer for Automation at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology. “A benefit with autonomous systems is that we can move people from the environment underground, that can be hazardous, to safe control rooms above ground, improving safety and productivity for our customers.”

Sandvik’s LH514 automated vehicle is the pinnacle of the next generation of autonomous systems in the mining sector. A solid, automation-ready loader which has become very popular in the industry, by virtue of its combining the functions of underground loader and underground hauler, plus its great operator ergonomics, and its easy navigation capability (due to its small envelope size).

“It’s groundbreaking for the industry that our mining machines now are able to load material, transport and empty it all by themselves” Mr Koppanen added. “Years before the automotive industry was even talking about concept vehicles, Sandvik’s self-driving loaders and trucks were already successfully working underground,” Koppanen said.

Sandvik CEO, Mr Rosengren, went on to remark how the crystal maze feat was an ideal way to display the company’s strong stance on the importance of innovation.

“Some of today’s most sophisticated technology is found within Sandvik’s different business areas,” Mr Rosengren said. Sandvik has over 40,000 employees globally, and about 2,600 of them are currently working as researchers in tens of research and development centres.

“We’ve always worked close to our customers developing new products and technologies. Going forward we clearly see digitalization as a key area. It will help both us and our customers to be more productive, efficient and sustainable,” he concluded.

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