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Daimler demos self-driving snow removal trucks; premiere of Remote Truck Interface

Following its successful demonstration of the Highway Pilot and Highway Pilot Connect systems (earlier post)—the latter making truck platooning possible—Daimler has demonstrated automated snow removal operations on the site of the former Pferdsfeld airbase. This application of autonomous commercial vehicle operation was based on a specific customer requirement.

Under the project name “Automated Airfield Ground Maintenance” (AAGM), four Mercedes-Benz Arocs tractor units demonstrated automated airfield clearing in a remote-controlled convoy. The benefits are obvious: Airfield clearances are hard to predict and thus difficult to plan, especially in winter. This makes snow removal units operated with pinpoint precision by a single vehicle operator to remove snow from runways especially crucial when extreme weather strikes without warning during the winter months, and they require no additional vehicle and staff scheduling.

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We are not just talking about new technologies, we are bringing them onto the road. Step by step we are developing our very latest assistance systems even further – with a view to automated driving. We are currently working on the implementation of two specific use cases: Firstly automated driving in quite normal traffic on motorways – with the clear aim of relieving driver workload and significantly improving safety. And secondly driverless operation in enclosed areas to significantly improve productivity. With today’s demonstration of automated snow clearance on an airfield, we are once more reinforcing our claim to technological leadership.

—Martin Daum, the Daimler AG Board of Management member responsible for Daimler Trucks

The project was established in close cooperation between Lab1886, the Daimler innovation incubator, Daimler Trucks and Fraport AG. Lab1886 actively supports the transformation of Daimler AG from an automotive manufacturer to a mobility provider, and works closely with the Daimler CASE initiative (earlier post).

Based in Frankfurt/Main, Fraport AG operates one of the world’s largest air traffic hubs. The objective of the joint testing activities is the implementation of state-of-the-art telematics-based vehicle control technology in areas not accessible to the public. This is one of the key aspects in which the new application differs from the technology milestones in the area of autonomous driving developed and realized for practical testing by Daimler to date. The Highway Pilot and the Highway Pilot Connect system presented for platooning are designed for use on public roads.

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Premiere for the Remote Truck Interface (RTI). The four Arocs test vehicles are equipped with the new Remote Truck Interface (RTI) for remotely controlling vehicle functions and exchanging data. The RTI is the centerpiece of the new technology, for which Daimler can draw on a significant pool of knowledge and engineering from projects such as the advanced Highway Pilot and Highway Pilot Connect systems.

All vehicles are fully interlinked via the RTI by means of telematic systems, all operate automated and all are able to lead or follow in the vehicle convoy. Specifically, this means that a convoy leader chooses a random unit from a fleet of available semitrailer combinations and defines this as the lead truck. The leader then uses a control panel to define the number and sequence of the other convoy vehicles, and conducts a pre-operation inspection of the semitrailer combinations.

All vehicles are equipped with dual GPS tracking (DGPS) and of course state-of-the-art vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V communication) technology.

In addition, the interplay of the innovative RTI and the remote control unit provides extremely fast and not least secure date exchange among vehicles. To make this work in real time, a full data exchange between the vehicles and the main control unit of the RTI takes place every 0.1 seconds. The transmissions in the area of V2V communication are based on the "Digital Short Range Communication DSRC“ technology.

The automated snow removal convoy comprises four vehicles during the test phase and can be expanded to up to 14 units. It paves the way for further applications. In addition to other airports that have already signalled interest in such precision work machines for automated runway maintenance, solutions for a wide variety of applications are feasible due to the Mercedes-Benz Remote Truck Interface.

This opens up new possibilities for our customers: High-precision maneuvering procedures of conventional trucks, remotely controlled by the driver outside the cab – for example, positioned at the rear of the vehicle with a perfect view of the maneuvers – are possible, as is unmanned driving in mines, at container terminals or other closed-off sites.

—Martin Zeilinger, Head of Advanced Engineering at Daimler Trucks

In the case of the demonstration of the Arocs tractor units, the Remote Truck Interface connects the vehicle with the outside world. The control functions for track guidance and operation of the convoy are housed in additional external control units such as the track computer, the operating panel and the wireless interface. Specifically this means that the automated Arocs trucks are able to perform the following functions:

  • Control: engine start/stop
  • Control: parking brake
  • Vehicle lateral control: steering
  • Vehicle longitudinal control: engine control (throttling up and down)
  • Vehicle longitudinal control: service brake
  • Powertrain management: transmission (engage start-off gear, all gear changes, engage neutral)
  • Powertrain management: activation and deactivation of the differential locks
  • Peripherals: lights including turn indicators, rotating beacons and much more
  • Special functions: body control; here: control of the mounted sweeper blower

The RTI control unit allows actuation of all connected vehicle functions via an interface (CAN). Remote control is thus possible by integrating a wireless interface into the CAN.

An important component of the RTI control unit is the integrated safety concept. This means that all vehicle functions are monitored. The safety routine is executed as soon as an error occurs. In this way we can ensure that the vehicles can be stopped safely and quickly if needed, and can then simply be operated manually.

—Martin Zeilinger

The snow-clearing application. In the past, airport operators have had to keep the required removal and cleaning equipment in an operational stand-by condition. The lead times for relatively rare and usually short-lived bad weather periods tie up major capacities.

On the other hand, an airfield requires consistent and thorough clearing operations even when just a little bit of snow covers the ground. On such sites, the snow must be cleared to one side over a width of up to 60 meters in a single pass. In the case of Frankfurt Airport today, up to 14 vehicles drive in a convoy with the appropriate overlap.

This means the snow is “passed on” from the front to the rear from one vehicle to the next. As a result, the snow load increases from vehicle to vehicle, and the performance requirement for the individual snow removal units rises sharply from front to rear. Furthermore, the staggered driving also makes high-precision guidance crucial for the quality of the clearing pattern. All this necessitates highly dissimilar requirements on the performance of each snow removal vehicle.

In the case of Frankfurt-Main airport, the convoy must keep the runways and taxiways free from snow and ice as a precisely staggered formation. To date, snow clearance machines have worked their way along meter by meter under poor visibility conditions in darkness and fog, with snow constantly being thrown up by the vehicles driving ahead.

The poor visibility often leads to increasing distances between vehicles, opening up the convoy and extending the time it takes to clear a runway. Moreover, poor visibility can lead to the outer vehicles damaging the runway marker lights, which are very expensive to repair.

In the test of the autonomously operating snow removal trucks of Daimler, a predefined snow removal program—under the constant control of a convoy leader—specifies the routes, direction and speed. The person in the lead vehicle of the removal convoy in charge of the demanding task enjoys relatively good visibility of the swaths to be cleared ahead of the lead and the trailing vehicles.

The swaths to be cleared are predefined with the goal of a high-precision clearing trajectory. This means the routes to be driven are always specified cartographically and are followed with pinpoint precision thanks to a differential GPS system—accuracy: three centimeters—by the lead vehicle as well as the other convoy vehicles thanks to constant target/actual comparisons.

A high level of flexibility is also a must for snow clearance operations on airfields. That is why the convoy leader—owing to suddenly identified and then immediately required deviations from the digitally specified clearing path—is able to take over the routing personally at any time.

To this end, the convoy leader has the classic controls—steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedal—at his disposal in each Arocs – and thereby full control over the vehicle. The trailing vehicles then immediately and fully automatically adopt the target paths resulting for them from the change of the route of vehicle 1.

All-wheel drive Arocs 2045 AS 4x4. The basis of the automated convoy is the all-wheel-drive Mercedes-Benz Arocs 2045 AS production tractor units from the robust Grounder product range, equipped with the latest OM 470 LA engine generation certified to Euro VI standards with an output of 315 kW (428 hp) and producing 2100 N·m of torque. At a brisk speed, most of the mass of snow is thrown to the side by a fully hydraulic, three-section snow plough measuring eight meters in width.

The finishing surface clearing touches are carried out by a sweeper (sweeper-blower). It is towed as a semitrailer and powered independently of the tractor unit by a six-cylinder engine from Mercedes-Benz installed at the rear of the semitrailer.

The entire tractor/semi-trailer combination is 23 meters long and weighs 25 tonnes in operational condition. The tractor unit, which was reinforced in the area of the snow plough mounts, accounts for about ten tonnes, the plough blade adds two tonnes to the total weight, the semi-trailer with the sweeper blower has a gross weight of 13 tonnes.

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