Technology allows excavation contractors to keep employees safe by keeping them out of the equipment.
John Skierka knows his company’s customers work in tenuous, remote areas that can take as much work to reach as it does to get the job done. So Skierka and his team at Great Excavations of Lethbridge, Alberta, developed technology allowing workers to remotely control their equipment, easing the burden of preparing a site and moving several pieces of equipment there.
“We use existing equipment and make them work unmanned,” says Skierka, general manager for Great Excavations. “By using the unmanned equipment, we remove a lot of risks.”
For example, if a traditional amphibious excavator needed to enter a toxic environment, such as a sewage lagoon, employees would need to wear hazmat suits and the company would need to have emergency crews and equipment standing by. “With the unmanned equipment, you don’t need that,” Skierka says. “It takes all human life out of the picture, reducing overall risk. You’re keeping people on the shore and out of danger.”
Sewage lagoons are just one example where the unmanned equipment can be used. Other sites include sulfur pits, ponds or other terrain with H2S, methane gas or other toxic elements present — anything that has the possibility to cause damage to the human body. Great Excavations’ machines are used in numerous industries including gas, oil, mining and municipal services.
HOW THE MACHINES WORK
The unmanned vehicles and the operators communicate via transmitters and receivers placed at each site. Skierka says a remote module is turned on, which allows the operators to connect to the machine. The command units are equipped with a hand-held joystick or a virtual cockpit that drivers can use to operate the vehicle.
Another important component is a video uplink for when the operators can’t see the vehicle — in other words they can see it and what they’re doing when there’s no clear line of sight.
“These remote control capabilities allow Great Excavations to offer unique solutions for operating amphibious equipment that breaks down barriers for working on difficult terrain in remote locations,” Skierka says. “You can send these machines in anywhere you would send in a manned machine.”
The remote-controlled excavator can reach up to 1,200 feet with zero latency. Onboard cameras also help operators see the work being done. “If you’re down 30 feet and digging up a leaky pipeline, you can easily see what’s going on,” Skierka says.
Besides improving safety for all those involved, the unmanned vehicles also have a smaller carbon footprint than traditional equipment since ice roads or swamp mats aren’t needed.
“One machine is doing all the work. You don’t need the machine and then all the other equipment to get that machine to where it needs to be,” Skierka says. “With an ice road or swamp mat, a lot of money is spent on logistics. You spend money to do the work and then you spend money to get there and back. With our method, the time frame is shorter and the environmental impact is shorter.”
There is a learning curve with using unmanned technology, but Skierka says employees have quickly adjusted.
“We’re gaining experience all the time, but traditional equipment has its challenges, too. Our winters aren’t as long as they used to be so it’s getting harder to have enough time to build an ice road and then use it,” he says. “The unmanned amphibious equipment does everything a standard piece of equipment does. It allows you to get the work done.”
Great Excavations became involved with unmanned vehicles when a customer asked for help cleaning out a sewage lagoon without exposing employees to any risk. From there, Skierka says the idea for a remote-controlled device was born.
“We took a look at how the industry was working in some of these toxic environments and how to reduce the cost of hazmat suits, supplied air, extra staffing and so on,” Skierka says.
“That’s when we realized it would be easier and better to use a remote-controlled system so we could sit in the nice comfortable chair on the side and run the machine. The remote control aspects of it really allow these companies, when they’re doing their risk assessments, to reduce the risk of human life when scheduling work in extremely difficult conditions. It’s another tool for managing risk and building in safety protocols.”
Skierka sometimes uses a fishing analogy in explaining how remote-controlled vehicles are a better option than traditional equipment. He says if someone wanted to fish in the middle of the lake, he could either build a floating dock out to the site or take a boat out to where they want to fish. “Of course, it’s better to take the boat and that’s what our equipment is like,” Skierka says. “You’re taking a boat out to where you want to go and you don’t need the other infrastructure to get there.”
Unmanned vehicle technology is in its infancy and Skierka expects usage to increase in the future with unmanned carrier trucks and other vehicles next on the horizon: “It’s an exciting industry to be involved with.”