The Caterpillar truck will soon have a mind of its own. Working with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, the industrial titan is developing self-driven large-haul trucks for use at BHP Billiton's mine sites — no human required. The vehicles, programmed to perform specific tasks, will be modified versions of Caterpillar's off-highway behemoths, which can carry 240 tons. They're expected to be on the ground by 2010.
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon have been working on the technology since the mid-1980s. For navigation, they have devised a system that uses GPS data and sensors such as laser range finders and cameras that provide feedback about terrain. The technology passed a major road test in November 2007, winning the Urban Challenge, a robotic-car race hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Such robotic vehicles "can be extremely productive because they can be programmed to operate at peak levels at all times," says Tony Stentz, the principal investigator at Carnegie Mellon. And unlike humans, "they also work through breaks and don't require any rest time."
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A version of this article appeared in the December/January 2009 issue of Fast Company magazine.