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Combining the Ordinary and the Extraordinary to Research the Future of Construction and Mining Equipment

Improving efficiency of remote control operation through accurate spatial recognition

In order to take the operator, who works in adverse conditions, out of the mining equipment and achieve safe and efficient autonomous operation of the machine, Komatsu MIRAI Construction Equipment Cooperative Research Center aims to create a system to control such machines remotely from offices in urban areas.

"As mining development progresses into barren regions and other remote areas due to expansion of resource development, ensuring safety at work and costs for improving residential environment have become challenges to be addressed. Autonomous operation and remote control of construction/mining equipment will improve safety and increase economic value," says Vice Director Yojiro OHBATAKE.

But, in current control systems, the efficiency of remote control operation drops by 50~60% when compared to manual controls. Dr. Ohbatake says, “Accurate spatial recognition is necessary for operating construction equipment, but visual information available via remote control is limited. So we focused on motion parallax, the optical change of the visual field of an observer. This is caused by a change in the observer’s viewing position or the object’s position. We've introduced 3D images with accurately reproduced depth to our remote control system to examine work efficiency."

In addition, by superimposing 3D information over the actual image of the terrain on worksites and their surrounding areas, Dr. Ohbatake said, "We developed a system in which users can perceive unevenness of terrain with depth perception even with 2D video. We saw a reduction in longitudinal errors when compared with a system without overlays." Research on the system to improve depth perception is now complete, and the team is moving forward to commercialize the technology.

"Autonomous operation" with minimal pre-loaded information using cameras as a navigational sensor

For autonomous driving, researchers attempt to develop a system to perform “vehicle travel control with a camera" as well as "navigation using minimal pre-loaded information." The position measurement systems provided by the global positioning system (GPS), which is used for the automotive navigation system, may become unusable in harsh environments, so they used a camera as a sensor for outdoor navigation. "We aim to develop a navigation system which provides voice guidance, such as 'Go along this road and turn at the intersection.' It’s a human-like system: although it has no detailed built-in map, it thinks about its next actions according to previous experience, so it can run with little information in accordance with environmental changes," said Director Koichi OHSUKA. If this technology is realized, it will become fundamental technology for next-generation autonomous driving.

Duality of corporate and academic aspects produces ideas that will become useful in the future

A unique initiative will begin from the 2018-19 academic year. Director Ohsuka said, "The Research Alliance Laboratories, has a mix of a corporate sense of striving for practical research and an academic sense of pursuing the unknown out of curiosity. In order to make use of this duality, we need to conduct off-the-wall research in addition to research that will be immediately useful in society. Therein lies the significance of the existence of the Komatsu MIRAI Construction Equipment Cooperative Research Center."

So, in addition to traditional, "ordinary" research, Komatsu MIRAI Construction Equipment Cooperative Research Center takes on "extraordinary" research that others never can. Currently, research staff, including 4 students at the Division of Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Science, School of Engineering and the Division of Mechanical Engineering, Graduate School of Engineering, exchange ideas about "extraordinary construction equipment of the future" and talk about them using illustrations. "As far as construction equipment goes, you can come up with anything. There are sure to be some feasible ideas hidden in this type of brainstorming. The long history of joint research between Osaka University and Komatsu allows us to try this experimental approach. I want people to think, 'They make all kinds of off-the-wall equipment in that lab,'" said Director Ohsuka, beaming with delight.

Research Alliance Laboratories

Research Alliance Laboratories is a system for inviting corporate research groups to Osaka University in order to develop multidimensional university-industry collaborative activities. This system aims to promote application of research results at Osaka University in industry, improve research quality, and nurture specialists by establishing research hubs for academic fields that can contribute to social development through long-term collaboration with the industrial circle.    

This is a reprint of the article posted in the Osaka University NewsLetter No. 78 (February 2018).

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