When it comes to work, what differentiates humans from machines is human versatility or the ability to perform a variety of tasks with reasonable accuracy.
For instance, one can be a plumber in the morning and a chef in the afternoon. However, a plumbing machine cannot transform into a chef in the next million years.
Furthermore, most of the machines usually perform a small number of tasks with a great deal of control from humans. However, the world is slowly evolving to have machines that can perform a series of tasks without human supervision, giving them significant versatility.
For instance, an autonomous vehicle can drive itself, break when need be and even determine the best route without human intervention. Therefore, autonomy and automation are quickly evolving to free humans to do other things or just relax.
Automation is a technical word used to describe the technology of a process or procedure where a machine operates with minimal human input or interference. This covers a wide scope of application such as in factories, robotics, aircraft, ships, cars, and electronics industries. This has been achieved by the application of integrated circuits, pneumatics, hydraulics, and electrical or electronics devices but mostly at a combination. Therefore, a machine or equipment performs a set of related functions after a person has defined the
sequence and order to complete the tasks hence human input is only supervisory.
Autonomy is where a machine performs given programmed operations in a certain scenario without any human input or intervention during the performance period. The machine is therefore termed to be autonomous. Autonomy can be categorized into two, either semiautonomous or fully autonomous. In autonomy, a machine works by relying on the technology to perform tasks. Various technologies have been put into application such as; sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning, which all work in corelation with each other to complete a defined task.
There are four levels of automation and autonomy.
The first level is level zero, where a human being operates the machine fully at all times.
Second is level one, this is the start of automation where the operator is function-specific. He can transfer a limited control over a specific function to a machine while he does the rest of the operations.
Level two applies the concept of semi-autonomous operation, where the operator sets the machine to accomplish a certain subset of function without interaction, thus he is left to do the remaining tasks.
The last level, level three, is autonomous. The operator programs the machine to accomplish all defined sets of tasks without any human interaction up to the completion stage. The operator is tasked to monitor the machine either remotely at a command and control center or on-site for safety and critical operations.
In the various engineering fields, these two types of technologies have been on research since the second industrial revolution, although autonomy is still a new millennial idea.
Automation is now common in engineering fields due to the increased demand for the production of high-quality products and precision demands in the industry, with the intent to utilize minimal time, less wastage of materials and less strain to the workers. The engineering sector has then proved to be the main source of these new technologies, which have turned out to be of great benefit to the engineering fraternity.
Due to the interdisciplinary involved in engineering, automation and autonomy, which were thought to be mechanical and electrical engineering fields have reaped benefits in the construction, mining and agricultural engineering sectors.
Their academia, research and experimentation have led to the modernization of the construction, mining and agricultural fields. A lot of machinery and robotics input in these sectors has been embraced and thus improved the working efficiency and operation of the workers.
Modern construction, mining and agriculture now rely on modern, state of the art and high-end engineering facilities.
Heavy plants and machinery are now a common thing in these sectors. These sectors are capital intensive hence, every coin saved matters a lot and contractors and professionals are always ready to invest in what saves them time and money while promoting efficiency and professionalism.
Various companies in the world are staking heavily especially in the new market trend of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in their research, testing, development and commercial manufacturing. Although this has not taken a great wake at Silicon Valley, some companies are starting up or fully established in this field and have taken the steps to make divisions in their companies to work on these autonomous projects.
Liebherr a Swiss-German company is taking the lead with semi-autonomous articulated dump trucks. They have developed a cabinless 7XX bulldozer to be controlled remotely together with an operator-less wheel loader, the L550. Volvo Autonomous Solution has created a commercially viable fifteen-tonne-capacity TA15 autonomous battery-powered hauler. Their setup includes charging stations, cloud communication technology, setup support, and a control tower.
The setup system allows several vehicles to put together as a haulage fleet with the incorporation of full-size on-road FH trucks, which are also autonomous. The combination is applicable in a quarry-mining field.
Komatsu uses software called FrontRunner to operate their automated hauling systems (AHS)since 2005, where they have been in operation at the Chile copper mining field. The software is used for machine guidance and operation and a separate application called Dispatch for fleet management. Their Automated haulage vehicles include; 830E-AT (255-tonne payload), 930E-AT (320-tonne payload), and 980E-AT (363-tonne payload) diesel/AC-electric-drive hauling trucks. Their Autonomous fleet includes an Innovative Autonomous Haulage Vehicle (IAHV) which is the weight distributed, the PC7000 shovel. Komatsu noted that load and haul unit costs have reduced by 15% while tire life by 40% due to improved manner of operation.
Caterpillar is also at the forefront on the automation and autonomy business. Their D11T bulldozers can be operated semi-autonomously in a group of three by one operator. They are linked to Command for Dozing AV platform to operate. They have invested heavily in offroad utility trucks such as the 797F for mining and heavy-duty construction with a payload of 363 tonnes. They have also begun automating the 793F, (227 tonne payload) and the 789D (181-tonne payload) trucks. For automation of off-road hauling trucks, Caterpillar has developed the Cat MineStar Command automated control AV platform, which the company has also adapted to work with the Komatsu 930E dump truck. Other top players in the automated and autonomous industry include Hitachi, Honda, Doosan, and Kobelco.
Individuals who have also brought autonomous solutions into the industry have formed some start-up companies. One of them includes Built Robotics based in San Francisco founded by Noah Ready-Campbell. They do not manufacture construction vehicles but sell aftermarkets installed with Artificial Intelligence devices and software. These automation upgrades make an ordinary equipment operator-less. A similar company in Trimble, which makes machine control solutions for cranes and earthmoving equipment by use of Augmented Reality (AR) earthwork displays for excavators that overlay computer-generated 3D (Computer-Aided Design) CAD model imagery over real-world terrain so that operators can keep excavator claws precisely aligned.
Agriculture has made a great step in terms of machinery and robotics as applied in the farm world.
Those repetitive and labor-intensive jobs can be substituted by a machine, which has
more work output as compared to human beings. Harvesting of fruits being a good example.
because it is labour intensive, tedious and a delicate task for the farmers since it is very easy
to damage the fruit. Abundant Robotics has created the first world apple-harvesting machine.
Agrobot also has created a strawberry harvesting robot, which can harvest the fruits according to the farmer’s preference. They use a flexible mobile platform where up to twenty-four robotic manipulators work together to pick the fruits. The robot is capable of harvesting eight acres a day hence eliminate thirty workers.
Bear Flag Robotics has developed a tractor automation kit, which farmers can install in their tractors for them to work autonomously. The kit will stock driverless technology and implement control. Blue River Technologies applies computer vision and robotics to build intelligent solutions for weeds control in cotton plants.
Their technology uses the “see and spray” technology where herbicides are sprayed precisely to the target plant periodically until it dies off thus preventing herbicide resistance. It eliminates 80% volume of herbicides that farmers spray daily hence saving 90% costs.
American Robotics is developing a fully autonomous robot as a service solution for rugged and real-world environments.
Through innovations in robotics and Artificial Intelligence, the company has developed an autonomous drone named “Scout”, base station, and analytics platform that is focused first on agriculture and provides insights to growers and researchers at high resolutions,speeds and frequencies never achieved before.
PEAT is another start-up company that uses a deep-learning empowered image recognition application termed Plantix. It is used to detect and recognize various defects hence helps in soil restoration techniques with a pattern detection of 95% accuracy.
Besides, Trace Genomics Company applies machine learning to detect soil weaknesses and strengths. These all boost healthy crop production and prevent defects in plants.
Where Company has specialized in usage of satellites in weather prediction and crop sustainability. It employs Machine Learning algorithms alongside satellites to predict the weather, crop sustainability and evaluate farms to detect the presence of pests and diseases.
Hortau Inc. deals with irrigation management solutions, which enable farmers to detect plantstress in real-time, ensure optimal plant growth, reduce water and energy consumption and as well assess environmental impact. Their system is web-based and wireless developed by a soil physicist and agricultural engineer in 2002.
The 5G network will also impact vastly autonomous vehicle industry since it will enhance the super-fast exchange of data via a cloud network when the machines are working.
This will enhance smooth communication of autonomous vehicles without interference.
Altogether, it will boost operations efficiency especially in mining operations, the network will facilitate in reduction of unpredictable downtimes, on the fly scheduling and challenges related to limited visibility in the fields.
In new machinery infrastructural deployment, expansions and upgrades will be enhanced. 5G will promote safety and emergency handling, real time data analysis, insights and predictive analytics with Machine Learning.
The network has high bandwidth, which will work well with the sensors in the field to relay real time video, and data hence all equipment will work seamlessly.
These will boost remote command and operation from a control centre where everything is monitored and Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) videos are sent real-time to operators on site.
A good example of company working on this is Capgemini SE, France.
A good and elaborate gaming-based software, which is created, as a simulator game to experiment the real feel of agricultural mechanisation is Farming Simulator 17 or 19. The simulator has helper functions where they use artificial intelligence and the player assigns them tasks to work on a particular operation in a specific field of choice.
This is a good example of how people are going to be working on their computers while the actual thing is happening out there in real life. One person can monitor about seven operations effectively in the game.
Automation and autonomy have proven to be of great benefit in the modern world. Due to application of sensor technology, the operators or machines can detect obstacles hence increased safety in a work site.
The operator by use of monitors in the cabin can see around the equipment without the need of a banksman even in adverse weather conditions. All operators can now work at an enhanced efficiency because there is no need for repeat work because the sensors can be used to determine heights, depths, angles and speed more accurately than by use of naked eyes.
Due to lack of repeat tasks, fuel and time is saved which can be used to perform other critical tasks. It also enhances productivity of labour since machines can work continuously at a constant rate unlike human beings are affected by changes in environment, time of the day example hot or cold periods during working hours.
Operators do not have to do mundane tasks hence the machines can perform on their behalf as they concentrate on other tasks. This has facilitated in reduced resting hours and less tired operators by the end of the day.
Changing of shifts is easier and if autonomous equipment are used, they can work for 24hrs nonstop with a few stops for maintenance checks and refuelling; machine do not go for lunch break or attend to nature calls.
Autonomous machines cut off waiting times during changing of shifts where some operators can be late or take some time before they get accustomed to the task at hand.
Machine do not require practice or rehearsal and they do not suffer from boredom or loss of concentration because they are mechanised and computerised.
Autonomous machines do not get affected by workers unions interference and labourers strikes or go slows, this saves contractors a lot of time and money. It has also reduced the time needed to interview and test operators for skills and cuts short the time needed to look for operators who at certain periods of the year can be unavailable.
The contractor does not need to have labour laws and union agreements so that he can commence a project hence saving some months for the project commencement.
The machines have better and detailed data reporting mechanisms, which are accurate and can be used to asses work output, fuel consumption, maintenance schedules by use of telematics.
Human beings can record work hours in which they were instead idling. This can be of very great advantage while bidding contracts, which are thin-margined. Most companies that have embraced this technology have reported 15-20% productivity, which is a huge milestone.
Human beings with automation and autonomy has created various reactions in the market in
the last five decades where research, modification and application has been taking place.
Numerous challenges have arisen during this period of which most of it has been to the positive of its development.
The main challenge is that the autonomous vehicles cannot handle unanticipated scenarios in case of an emergency or change of events as human beings can perform.
Autonomous vehicles can only perform the pre-programmed task and if an alteration occurs within that period, it arises to errors and malfunctions. These systems are referred to as “brittle” systems due to these problems.
“Automation surprise” is also a common factor to consider because sometimes the machines in a system of operation they encounter errors which were not anticipated hence the operator may not understand what the system is doing and why it is doing it.
Therefore, the operator gets into a dilemma, which can be an uphill task to comprehend or decipher. This might lead to delays, accidents in a working environment because the equipment might collide, catch fire, or explosions can occur during the process, which might lead to fatal consequences and losses even to the human operators.
Due to the reliance of automation, human beings can over-rely on the systems capabilities
and capacities hence reducing their dexterity and vigilance during operation, also issues like
high cognitive workload activity due to one person handling many machines at a go.
These has led to formation of problems such as “out of the loop” where the operators are slow to detect problems and to intervene appropriately.
Automation and autonomy has also led to the amendments of legal documents hence posing legal risks especially in the construction sector. Construction sectors are unpredictable due to the nature of the work site and environment.
The sites are normally space-constrained unlike mining and agricultural fields. The legal risks include workers’ training and safety, potential accidents if the systems malfunction and costs associated in maintenance of the equipment.
During contract making, provisions have to be made to consider the risks and compensations in case of an accident, delay or alterations in costs.
Insurance companies also need to address the issue when it comes to compensatory damages arising from autonomous machine and vehicles.
Labour unions will also work together with contractors in order to agree on the percentage of autonomous input in contracts to avoid labour unions uproars and strikes concerning reduction of employment.
Commercial risks include: high capital investment in equipment and machinery, contract bidding price variations, consideration of cost allocations of a project, unclear return on project and when procurement prioritizes on the lowest bidder.
With the growth in automation and autonomy, how does the future look like? There are several possibilities.
Maybe humans will build a fully automated world where humans labor will be a thing of the past.
However, this scenario has its advantages and disadvantages. For a start, many people will concentrate on other activities such as relaxing and enjoying what comes their way, from the machines. Companies can also be autonomous, making them highly productive and resilient.
However, keenly looking at the scenario, we realize that most of the machines will be owned by large companies or wealthy individuals who will do with other humans what they please. Therefore, the poor members of society will be at the mercy of the rich.
The alternative scenario would be a world that men and machines work hand in hand in factories and at home.
This is the most plausible scenario because it guarantees a spread of control that makes it hard for a small number of people to have full control of the population. However, humans will only hold supervisory or design roles. Therefore, the number of people who will be needed in the production lines will decrease significantly.
The reduction in the number of people needed in the production lines will lead to a reduction in job opportunities.
Therefore, to adequately prepare for the future, every individual should strive to understand the impact of automation and autonomy on the economy and his or her social life.