The next level of machine control

Augmented reality for excavators, mastless configuration for graders, and bring your own device are some of the new features available to increase operator productivity.

Machine control, Grade control, Heavy equipment

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CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020 saw the launch of several advanced machine control features for construction equipment. These included version 2.0 of Trimble’s Earthworks grade control platform with improvements to enable faster ROI, increase productivity and decrease training time for operators.

New features of Trimble Earthworks 2.0 include horizontal steering control for dozers, augmented reality for excavators and mastless motor grader configuration. Integrated Trimble Loadrite payload management displays grade control and accurate payload data on one screen, increasing mass haul productivity and efficiency by preventing underloading and improving safety by avoiding overloading. Trimble Earthworks is also now available for compact grading attachments with dual GNSS, single GNSS and total station guidance options.

Topcon Positioning Group introduced advances to its portfolio of machine control solutions that are designed to provide contractors with better performance and profitability in earthmoving applications. The new solutions include tilt rotator functionality for the automatic excavator system, mobile and bring your own device (BYOD) display options. Leica Geosystems released a new semi-automated excavator functionality for the iXE3 3D excavator machine control solution, including tilt and tilt rotator bucket automation.

Augmented reality for excavators

Trimble has introduced an augmented reality feature for excavators which enables users to easily understand 3D models, cut/fill information, slope data and other bench points and reference points on the in-cab display in context, without the need to interpret complex 2D plans or stakes. Augmented reality was first released in the Trimble SiteVision system and is now available on excavators with Trimble Earthworks. Using a camera mounted on the outside of the machine, operators can view 3D models in a real-world environment at a true-life scale, in the context of existing surroundings. On the Trimble Earthworks display, the model is overlaid onto the existing ground giving the operator a better understanding of the work that needs to be done. Visibility of the bucket gives operators better situational awareness to be able to keep surrounding people and objects safe.

"With the intersection of physical and digital worlds, Trimble is empowering contractors to accelerate their business," said Cameron Clark, business area manager, Trimble's Civil Engineering and Construction. "Augmented reality simplifies complex concepts by allowing users to see a blend of digital content and real-world environments."

Tilt and rotation for automatic excavators

Topcon’s advanced tilt rotator functionality allows automatic excavator operators to easily swivel or tilt the bucket with automatic boom control for faster and more efficient excavation.

“If excavator operators are in situations such as at the top of the slope, grading a long incline and not totally perpendicularly lined up, positioning the cutting edge of the bucket to the surface is now more easily attainable with the tilt rotator functionality,” said Murray Lodge, senior VP of construction, Topcon. “Operators can excavate more quickly, moving the excavator fewer times, with less wear and tear on the chassis – all with the proven hydraulic, automated control the system offers. It is also extremely beneficial when navigating around manholes, trenches, and generally tight spaces.”

Automatic control of boom, bucket, tilt and tilt rotator bucket

The semi-automatic functionality for Leica Geosystems’ iXE3 3D excavator machine control automatically controls boom, bucket, tilt and tilt rotator bucket functions to dig faster and more accurate to the target design surface and cross slope. The new functionality enables the operator to execute complex tasks, reduce manual controls, increase productivity, speed and accuracy of the work, even for less experienced operators.

“Automating the excavator on a jobsite will increase productivity and accuracy, decrease operator fatigue and fuel consumption. I am convinced that a more focused and alert operator is a safer operator, decreasing the risk of accidents and costly rework errors,” said Kris Maas, product management director in the machine control division at Leica Geosystems.

The semi-automatic excavator features allows the operator to select auto boom control, auto bucket control, auto tilt control and auto rotation control or in any combination to suit the operator’s choice and the task at hand. The system is developed through the hydraulic controller and requires the installation of a hydraulic control unit. The advanced 3D excavator machine control solution offers several new functions such as easy engagement of the auto function by pulling the stick; cross-cut surface protection to prevent the operator from digging into other parts of the design surface; automatic adjustment of the bucket height to minimise over-excavation and costly rework; intelligent slope detection to automatically snap to the correct slope of the surface under the bucket; and rotation controlled cross-cut, combining the auto bucket and the auto tilt functions to match the target surface regardless of the bucket rotation.

In the initial phase, the semi-automatic excavator functionality will be available for the following machine models: Liebherr 924 and Liebherr 926; Case 210 and Case 250; Doosan 255; Hitachi 210 and Hitachi 300; and John Deere 210 and John Deere 300. With the second release, the system will be available for multi-brand and multi-class machines.

Mastless motor graders

Trimble’s new mastless motor grader configuration gives operators an improved range of blade motion, allowing for machine control in applications where it was previously not possible. The mastless configuration mounts one GNSS receiver on the cab and one on the gooseneck of the machine to eliminate masts and cables traditionally located on the blade. Mastless GNSS receivers are ideal for the blade's maximum range of motion, which is needed for steep slope work and complex designs with tight tolerances. The new configuration enables contractors to decrease risk of damage to the machine, keep valuable receivers safer as well as reduce the time needed to remove and reinstall them each day.

Caterpillar, too, has launched its new mastless Cat Grade with 3D for motor graders with the aim to provide improved grading efficiency, accuracy and productivity of automated grading systems without the limitations associated with GPS masts. The new integrated mastless grade system can be installed and calibrated at the factory on new machine orders or as a field retrofit for existing models in customers’ fleets. Retrofit kits are available for pre- and post-2019 M Series models equipped with or without the attachment ready option (ARO).

Previous GPS systems for motor graders required 6-ft-tall (1.8-m) masts mounted to the ends of the moldboard, exposing the components to potential damage and theft. The antennas/receivers were often removed and installed daily, limiting the machine’s time in the dirt, and the masts limited the blade’s range of motion. The masts also limited the types of applications for the motor grader.

With GNSS antenna/receivers mounted on the cab and front chassis of the motor grader, the new Cat Grade with 3D system offers a factory installed solution that significantly reduces the potential for component damage and theft as well as eliminates the need for daily removal. Removing the masts and cables deliver maximum productivity and full range of motion for the moldboard.

By offering automatic blade control, the system reduces manual operator inputs and allows operators to be more productive. E-Fence comes from the factory for Cat Grade with 3D. When activated, E-Fence prevents the moldboard from contacting the tires and ladder and prevents the circle from potentially damaging to the link bar.

With the new Cat Grade with 3D, no longer do contractors need to dedicate one machine to GPS. Cat motor graders equipped with the new mastless system can work on a broad range of applications, including bank slope, cutting passes, mixing materials, ditch building, clearing and back slope, and high slope.
Production of the mastless Cat Grade with 3D will begin in the second half of 2020, and the first models equipped with the new system will be the Cat 140, 150 and 160 motor graders.

Horizontal steering control for dozers

The horizontal steering control feature for dozers in Trimble Earthworks 2.0 automatically controls the machine to follow any horizontal alignment such as a back of a curb, breakline, roadway centerline or bottom of slope, without operator assistance. The feature allows the operator to focus on the grade and machine productivity rather than worrying about steering, reducing operator fatigue and errors. It enables the machine to follow the horizontal guidance from the 3D model, providing operators increased awareness of their surroundings, better accuracy and improved productivity with decreased overlap and fewer passes.

Trimble Earthworks 2.0

The Trimble Earthworks grade control platform version 2.0, including integrated Loadrite payload management, mastless motor grader for select Cat motor graders and augmented reality for excavators is expected to be available in the second quarter of 2020, and horizontal steering control for dozers is expected to be available in the second half of 2020 through the worldwide Sitech distribution channel. Mastless motor grader, augmented reality for excavators and horizontal steering control for dozers will require additional hardware and software purchases. 



Trimble also released the Earthworks Assistant app to provide an easier way to access critical Earthworks learning material and documentation, allowing for a shorter learning curve and less downtime for operators. This stand-alone app, available for download on the Google Play store, consolidates and simplifies access to training guides and videos inside and outside of the cab. The Earthworks Assistant app makes it easy to learn and troubleshoot using an Android cell phone, even from remote sites.

Bring your own device

Topcon’s small excavator and compact track loader machine control offering includes bring your own device options that can work as a substitute for control boxes in some applications. This solution incorporates the same hardware for Topcon 3D machine control with an indicate-only option running on Android devices with a free app named Pocket MC, which is part of the new MC Mobile system family.

Pocket MC also allows for a local positioning system (LPS) option for excavation. Now, an LN-150 layout navigator total station can be used as an economical and easy-to-use alternative to fully featured traditional total stations. 

“Pocket MC can be downloaded from the Google Store and used right from a phone or tablet either as a simple entry-level machine controller option for contractors who want an inexpensive way to speed up the productivity of their fleet, or as a backup on the job site to a fully featured controller — so, operators are still working, timelines keep moving,” said Murray Lodge.

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