Remote-control vehicles keep construction workers out of harm’s way

indexRemember the remote-control truck you had as a kid? You could barge into the sand box, toggle your way back out, crash unexpectedly and reverse just as quickly, all while staying out of harm’s way. Today, construction workers have the option to use remote-control equipment from outside the cab, so they can do dangerous work more safely and efficiently.

The latest advancement in these wireless technologies is a collaboration between Caterpillar and TORC Robotics known as RemoteTask. Made available for purchase in North America this month, the remote-control system operates several Cat machines from up to 1,000 feet away.

RemoteTask provides a health benefit by giving workers the opportunity to stand up and walk around, rather than sitting in a vehicle’s cab for hours on end. But the biggest benefit is that it can prevent injuries by removing the operator from the machine while keeping control in their hands.

It’s important to note that remote-control vehicles could give operators a false sense of safety. But there are several types of accidents that would be less damaging to the operator if the driver is not in the cab. The most common hazard is toppling over while working around trenches or on a steep slope. There’s also the danger of a load-bearing wall falling on a vehicle working in a trench or inside a room. Falling debris, materials or infrastructure such as concrete slabs or steel beams could also crush the cab, killing or badly injuring the driver.

Approximately 100 employees are fatally injured and approximately 95,000 employees are injured every year while operating powered industrial trucks according to OSHA. 

Driving machines remotely is especially appealing for demolition tasks that kick up airborne contaminants such as dust, asbestos and silica.

Suffolk Construction’s Northeast Regional Safety Director Marty Leik said driving remotely also allows the operator to better see if anyone accidentally gets in their way.

“An operator outside the cab can see around the machine,” Leik said. “It prevents other people from walking into his swing radius or work zone. That’s a huge benefit.”

Leik also noted that simply mounting and dismounting a machine can be dangerous.

“One of the most expensive claims I’ve ever seen personally was for an operator who was climbing out of a cab in the winter and slipped on the fender and fell six or seven feet,” he said. “He sustained major injuries to his knee, hip and shoulder.”

While these are the most dangerous scenarios, RemoteTask also works well on more mundane tasks such as building retaining walls and cutting concrete.

“When I use the RemoteTask controller, the machine response is instantaneous,” Bob Shoop, Product Demonstrator/Instructor for Caterpillar, said in a press release. “The feel and response mirrors the operator controls of the machine itself.”

RT_P2_New_Label_20151201_001The controller for Cat’s RemoteTask system is called a “belly box.” The “belly box” straps around an operator’s waste and features two joysticks and a series of buttons. Any Cat dealer can install the RemoteTask system on one of these machines in about an hour for approximately $15,000. Once installed, the machine will still be able to transition from manual to remote mode at the turn of a key. Another safety feature is that the weight of a person sitting in the operator’s seat will temporarily lock the remote control’s capabilities. The system can also be transferred from one machine to another.

A remote-control construction vehicle was first introduced to the market in 2013 when Komatsu released the D61i-23 dozer. It is the world’s first fully automatic blade dozer, meaning the blade can automatically and seamlessly shift from bulldozing to grading mode. And it can even realize and prevent overload on the blade automatically. The D61i-23 dozer won an Innovation Award from Equipment World in 2014. Komatsu has since expanded its line with three more models and is working on creating a remote-control excavator.

Another company, Humanistic Robotics, has also built the wireless Safe Remote Control that uses an Xbox-like controller to move machinery, such as a skid-steer loader. The analog controller is not only durable and rugged but lighter than the typical “belly box” remote control.

Only time will tell how well these products will work, how safe they are, and what their exact levels of precision will be. It’s also still unclear how practical and cost efficient they will be for everyday use on construction sites. But while these technologies might start out by being used for the most dangerous situations, they could ultimately be a huge addition to the industry’s ever growing tool chest.

This post was written by Suffolk Northeast’s Project Administrator Lindsay Davis. If you have questions, she can be reached at Suffolk Northeast Project Engineers Gray Pieri and Mariel VanAtta also contributed to this post.


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