Autonomous solution sales rise during COVID-19 pandemic

October 13, 2020

While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a heavy impact on the sale of mining and construction equipment, it is also being credited with helping to drive the demand of autonomous driving technology.

Reuters reported that Caterpillar, the largest maker of mining equipment in the world, has seen a double-digit percentage increase in sales of its autonomous technology for mining equipment in 2020 compared with 2019.

The sales of its equipment has slowed during the past nine months as have sales for Komatsu and John Deere as operations around the world have struggled with restrictions imposed by the pandemic.

Many companies are now looking for autonomous options for mines and construction and Fred Rio, worldwide product manager at Caterpillar’s construction digital & technology division, told Reuters that remote-control technology, which allows users to operate machines from several miles away, would be available for construction sites in January.

The company is also working with space agencies to use satellite technology to allow an operator sitting in the United States to remotely communicate with machines on job sites in, say, Africa or elsewhere in the world, he said.

Autonomous technologies have been in place long before the COVID-19 outbreak, and it has helped Caterpillar and others provide solutions to customers.

Last year, Rio Tinto signed up the company to supply self-driving trucks, autonomous blast drills, loaders and other machines for the construction of the Koodaideri iron ore mine in Australia, which is expected to be operational next year.

The mining industry has already adopted some technologies for self-driving trucks and remote operation of load-haul-dump machines. However the suspension in activities worldwide following government-mandated lockdowns at the peak of COVID-19, as well as recent outbreaks of infections at coal mines in Poland, have accelerated the deployment of those technologies.

Anthony Cook, general manager for autonomous haulage systems at Komatsu, said a lot of customers had brought forward their spending plans following the pandemic in a bid to take drivers out of mining trucks.

He said the COVID-19 crisis had not hit the fortunes of his autonomous business: “If anything, it has got crazier.”

Caterpillar and Komatsu hold the lion’s share of the global autonomous haulage system market worldwide.

But Illinois-based Caterpillar has a competitive advantage, according to some analysts, as its technology can be retrofitted onto competitors’ equipment, making it a better fit for mixed fleets. Komatsu’s technology currently only works with its own machines.

Komatsu’s Cook said that while retrofitting offered a short-term solution, his company was developing technology to allow different brands of equipment to operate together “safely and efficiently”, which he added would offer long-term benefits.

But Jim Hawkins, general manager at Caterpillar’s resource industries division, said the ability to retrofit had helped drive up sales, because mining companies can buy the hardware and software to make machines operate autonomously without paying the much larger cost of overhauling their whole fleet.

 

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