Ericsson builds 4G-controlled excavator

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  • Earthmovers & Exacavators

Ericsson researchers have built a system that allows a Volvo Construction Equipment excavator to be remotely driven from thousands of kilometres away over a mobile-phone network to demonstrate the potential of the technology and the need to build even faster 5G networks.

Ericsson builds 4G-controlled excavator
Ericsson's mobile-network-controlled Volvo excavator.

On one side of the system is a control rig consisting of an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and 3D-audio headphones, while on the other is an excavator with a 360-degree camera and microphones that stream audio and video back to the operator. Also involved is equipment from Oryx Simulations and an app built using Ericsson Research’s open source project.

Ericsson demonstrated the technology at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Visitors to the stand were able to drive two real excavators remotely – one in Barcelona and one nearly 3,000km away in Eskilstuna, Sweden.

In a video on the Ericsson website, researchers at the Swedish company explain how they built the system to show how a 5G network could be used in the real world. For the moment it’s restricted to using a 4G LTE network with a higher latency than the team really needs.

"I found this new technology called the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles," senior researcher and experience designer Marcus Gardman says, "and I thought, well, these are made for gaming but what if we could use them to stream live 360 video and use them as a view port for remote-controlling a vehicle so you really get the feeling of being somewhere else. Basically, you get the feeling of teleportation."

Gardman says that, once perfected, the technology could be used in a number of industries such as agriculture, mining, forestry and transportation.

"We don’t want to replace humans," he adds. "We want to place them in a safe environment. I mean, we have gas-filled mines, we have [nuclear] power plants that fail … people shouldn’t be in those hazardous environments."

It’s an exciting concept, which takes a big step further than JCB’s remote-controlled excavator, but can you really operate an excavator from miles away, with no feedback from the soil or rock, and no physical connection between the operator and the worksite? Time will tell.

You can watch the videos here and here.

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