Automatic steering: a winning product with deep roots
Brown, muddy fields at dawn. The smell of freshly applied manure fertilizer in a warm spring breeze. The clickety-clack of an antique turnip harvesting machine in the cool of the evening.
At face value these images do not appear to have very muchin common with a bustling container port; all fired up with 24/7 operations, cut throat competition and an insatiable appetite for productivity – nor do the tranquil farmlands seem like a logical place for the emergence of any cutting edge technology.
But given some innovative spirit, and time – a dozen years to be exact – and the connection is completed.
In 1995 a small start-up business Modulaire Ltd. was one of the first in the world to demonstrate a DGPS controlled autonomous vehicle that was able to follow a pre-programmed path with astonishing accuracy, in all weather conditions and without any susceptibility to human error or fatigue. In 2008 the same business – albeit under a different name – has delivered the 200th fully automatic steering system for use in RTG cranes, enhancing the safety and productivity of container yards and providing RTG operators with a comfortable, reduced workload environment.
“It is actually not as big a leap as one could imagine,” tells Mikko Sampo, co-founder and President of Modulaire, Ltd., later acquired by Savcor Group, and in the summer of 2007, joined Konecranes as a fully owned subsidiary.
“The enabling technology was the high end GPS. Through our intelligence arm in the US we were able to locate the latest advances in this technology and quickly build application testing platforms. To my knowledge, in 1995 we were the first development group anywhere to use a real-time kinematic, dual frequency DGPS receiver in an autonomous vehicle application, a track driven light duty multi-purpose tractor,” explains Mikko.
“With the cost of the receiver running over 100,000 Euros – it did not take a rocket scientist to figure out that either we had to look for other, fairly high value applications, or the cost had to come down by the order of magnitude.”
Actually, both of the above happened: The evolving DGPS technology got demilitarised and commercialised, cost came down and at the same time Modulaire Ltd. focused on identifying a new application for its proprietary control algorithms.
“We actually sold several autonomously controlled crawler tractors that were based on this dual frequency L1/L2 DGPS system, but it was obvious that it would not become a volume product anytime soon,” Mikko reminisces.
“The similarities between an agricultural field operation and a container yard are actually striking,” continues Mikko. “Both are reasonably isolated environments, operations are very repetitive and the economics of the operation are driven by often relatively small improvements in productivity. Also, environmental issues, safety, precision and driver’s working conditions are essential elements in the overall quality of the operation.”
Add to this the almost identical steering systems in Modulaire’s agricultural crawler tractor and a modern 100 tonne RTG – both are steered by varying the drive speed on either side of the unit – and it did not take long for the first RTG automatic steering system to emerge from the fledgling company’s skunk works.
The first commercial automatic RTG steering application was delivered in 2002, backed by a new owner, Savcor Group under a newly adopted name Savcor One. The customer was a major player in a demanding market: Maryland Port Administration in Baltimore, Maryland. “Of course we could have picked a lower profile launch customer,” chuckles Mikko, “but we wanted to tackle the bull by the horns – and this deal also introduced us to what has turned out to be a very fruitful co-operation with Konecranes.”
The system was delivered on schedule and on spec, although Mikko confides: “Oh yes, there was occasional drama and a few sleepless nights..., but isn’t that what pushes us to reach even higher; if this was easy, everyone would be doing it!”
The automatic RTG application was exceptionally robust and shared a lot of software (and even some hardware) with the autonomous vehicles. It featured two separate dual frequency DGPS receivers and antennas that were instrumental in determining the exact orientation of the RTG even when stationary (the orientation of the RTG relative to the runway is a different parameter from the actual movement vector, which normally is aligned with the runway).