In a global first, Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) is among a small number of pioneering companies trialling 5G mobile connectivity. With the program set to make a big impact on construction innovation, we find out more from 5G expert Calle Skillsäter, Volvo CE's Technical Specialist for Connected Machines.
In 2017, we successfully placed a machine 400m below ground and controlled it from the surface. And when we first tested the technology back in 2015, we had an excavator placed in Eskilstuna and operated from Barcelona. So that tells you the potential for remote operation. And now with the reduced latency that 5G provides, it really does mean you can achieve remote operation from extremely far away. But at a certain distance the latency in the network will be significant anyhow.
We will be testing this technology for two years. Over this time, we will see the performance of the network evolve and get better. What is really exciting is that at this very early stage, we are in a unique position to iron out any problems and play a key role in actually influencing how 5G will work for industrial purposes when it is rolled out more widely.
Of course, the goal for us here at Volvo CE, is that we want to make this system so mature and so successful that we can test it with our customers. To see how this technology can function on a real construction site. Hopefully that will be something we can achieve by the end of the trial.
Absolutely. The aim is that after the initial testing phase with the wheel loader, we will then be able to test it with the HX2 hauler concept machine to see whether it is possible to have a work cycle operated entirely using 5G. In principle, we can then test 5G with six to eight autonomous haulers transporting gravel across the site.
Mining can be dangerous – either for people operating the machines in remote locations or because of the fumes that are released after blasting rock. But if we can remove people from the site, then we are reducing the risk of accidents entirely. You'll also have the capability to operate several operations and sites from one central location – increasing productivity.
Absolutely, it's not just mining. The forestry industry could certainly benefit, as an industry where you have lots of incoming trucks loading and unloading on to trains, often at night. Clearly working at night offers some dangers for visibility so removing operators makes the operation more safe. And again, for really dangerous jobs in the steel industry or the energy sector, where physically moving material can risk explosion or toxic gas emissions, then removing people is clearly a good solution.
Safety is obviously a big factor, but clearly 5G will have a direct positive impact on productivity. Today's remote control technology provides a delay which makes it very difficult to control a machine with any speed or precision, but 5G will be as good as real time. In addition, the picture quality is much better, video footage is in a better resolution and 5G provides a more reliable connection – all of which makes it easier for the operator in the simulator.
We did find it hard to initially get the hardware. We are so early in the trial that we have trouble finding modems to communicate with the antenna. Telia has been useful in providing the right equipment for us to use. We are so early in trialing this technology that this obviously has its advantages and disadvantages.
It depends on different use cases in construction – how do they work, do they meet the demands of the industry, is it feasible for customers? 5G will come first to those that benefit the most, but it will take time to build the network and required infrastructure. For us here in the construction industry, and for static operations like a quarry or mine it really can come quite fast. The timing is good – our customers need connectivity and they want more data. And we're the ones providing the research to see just how possible it is.
Image 1: Volvo CE is currently testing the potential for 5G in powering a remote-controlled wheel loader.
Image 2: Calle Skillsäter, Volvo CE's Technical Specialist for Connected Machines.