Equipment focus: Komatsu Intelligent Machine Control
Matt Wood tries his hand at building a ‘golf course’ using earthmovers fitted with Komatsu’s Intelligent Machine Control system.
It’s a pretty well known fact that golf was invented in Scotland and its origins can be traced back to the 1490s. What isn’t widely known, however, is that the game’s original name in Gaelic was actually wakfuk, which pretty much sums up my abilities when it comes to using a golf club.
So when Komatsu wanted to know if I wanted to come along and build a ‘golf course’ using its Intelligent Machine Control (iMC) system I figured why not? My golf course building abilities must be better than my game!
Talking about machine control systems will either put some to sleep or raise fears of the dreaded ‘A’ word: autonomy.
Komatsu’s iMC system does have some semi-autonomous features, but these are aimed at improving accuracy, and improving efficiency both in fuel and time on the job.
In fact, in some cases the system can save the need to use other machines such as graders for finishing work.
We turned up for a demo and a play in the dirt at the Hunter Plant Operator Training School (HPOTS) facility on the outskirts of Cessnock in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley.
Bring in the drones
Machine control systems are nothing new, but one of the key aspects of the iMC system is its integration with the machine. Indeed, iMC is a part of Komatsu’s SmartConstruction concept — which is great for a big kid like me because it also involves airborne drones.
Essentially a drone can be used to survey the site in the pre-design stage. The site is then designed and 3D-modelled. This information to achieve this 3D model is then loaded into the machines on site.
In mining applications this concept can also be used with fully autonomous haulage equipment.
With the Komatsu system there are no exposed harnesses on the machine and no vulnerable antennae mounted on the blades or buckets of the equipment. This means there’s nothing exposed that’s easily vandalised or accidentally trashed.
A 3D global navigation satellite system (GNSS) is at the heart of iMC equipped machines. The iMC system relies on a cab-mounted antenna to chat with the Topcon HiPer V module positioned on site.
The V box then spends its time yakking to between 12 and 15 satellites to get real-time positioning data. The machines then know where they are located on the 3D plan model they are working to.
At the end of a shift the drone can then be sent up again to map the site, which is a lot easier and safer than having surveyors and site engineers out in the dirt among the machinery.
Komatsu D61EXi-23 dozer
The first machine we looked at was a Komatsu D61EXi-23 dozer, whose iMC unit was chassis-mounted. The stroke-sensing hydraulic cylinders use a magnetic strip and roller arrangement so the system knows exactly where the blade is at all times.
Our 20-tonne dozer was also fitted with a Power Angle Tilt Blade (PAT) to help with lighter finishing work. According to Komatsu, when fitted with iMC this dozer is accurate to within 4-6mm.
The D61EXi-23 also features load sensing which prevents track slip, which means that you can rip into the surface without thrashing the machine.
Rather than the blade trying to cut straight down to target level, the machine will raise the blade as needed during the cut to reduce strain on the machine.
Essentially the blade on the dozer speaks to the chassis-mounted iMC unit which then talks to the HiPer V module on site which then talks to the eyes in the sky.
Komatsu also had some other iMC dozers on the site, a D65, D85 and D15 all fitted with Sigma blades. These blades are designed to roll the load in the centre of the blade during the cut rather than load it up or lose load out of the sides of the blade.
Komatsu PC210LCi-10 excavator
There was also a Komatsu PC210LCi-10 excavator with iMC on our site and we got to have a closer look at this baby as well. The company says this is the world’s first semi-autonomous excavator.
Because the excavator slews, this 23-tonne iMC digger uses two antennas to talk to the base station and features encoders located in the boom pins as well as the ram cylinders to keep track of where the business parts of the machine are as it’s working.
As with the dozer the target surface is displayed on a large PLC unit inside the cab and gives both a plan and side elevation view of the machine and its surrounds.
The plan view from above also displays the working surface to let the operator know what parts of the site have been excavated to the programmed base line and those which are under or over the level required.
In a way it’s almost like colouring in a picture. As you excavate, the work area turns green when you’re on target.
On the job
From the cabin of the digger there’s not a lot to differentiate it from non-iMC-equipped machines, save the large PLC readout. I was able to find the extra-rabbit button to bump the revs up to working speed and set to having a dig.
I might be a little rusty at the controls of an excavator these days but this system does inspire some confidence in operation.
As soon as the bucket hit the target surface it stopped. This meant that I could boom out and crowd the bucket back often only using one stick as the system overrode any other hydraulic input I was making.
Boom up, arm out and back became a fast, smooth process as the bucket skimmed across the target surface until it was full, and not down to any great skill on my part. In the hands of an experienced operator I’d imagine this system would be astonishingly fast.
The D61 was a similar proposition. With the 168hp power plant at max rpm it was simply a matter of moving forward and giving the blade control joystick a tap. The blade then automatically dropped to working level and followed the target surface as I ploughed into the site.
At the end of the run it was again just a matter of tapping the blade control joystick back, which raised it to full height, and hitting reverse to go back for another run.
Even without iMC, the D61 is a nice little dozer to operate. The 6-way PAT blade is versatile and with the accuracy tolerances claimed by Komatsu would be a great machine for finishing work.
After all this you’d think that we’d have ended up with a picture-perfect wakfuk green. After all, Komatsu reckons that iMC is at least 15 per cent more efficient than the best currently available aftermarket system.
After looking at the god-awful mess that I created at the HOPTS site who am I to argue? I may have made a mess, but I made an efficient mess.
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