WesTrack/AGVs; The Bomb; The Club


One of four WesTrack triple-trailer driverless trucks, hauling 128,000 lbs of cargo, making its rounds.  In two years WesTrack logged 1.72 million road miles - driverless.

Automatic Guided Vehicles and leaning slightly forward

Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) traditionally have operated on factory floors or on paved outdoor areas without drivers.  Designed to perform their operations without direct human contact, their use is expanding in military and commercial applications.  They have been guided by embedded wire, painted line, laser, inertial or Cartesian-guided and now that is being expanded with the introduction of machine vision, ultrasonics, and the various forms of GPS now available. The various satellite positioning systems have planet wide coverage, making the entire world a potential operating area for AGV’s.  Digital maps now detail nearly every road and trail on the planet and map makers are racing each other to improve their world-wide coverage.  

Automatic guided vehicle systems are typically computer-controlled, wheel-based, cargo carriers, and electric powered.  Joining their ranks are a variety of security and intelligence AGV’s that patrol such places as warehouses and airport perimeters checking for hazards and intruders.   In the past their computers were programmed to move AGVs from point A to point B, wait for a fixed duration or until a signal is given and then move on to the next point.  Newer AGV designs have more complex behaviors available such as dynamic path planning, where the machine itself chooses what route to take to get to the assigned destination, much like automobile navigation systems do.

The goal of converting 1/3 of all US armed forces combat vehicles to driverless operation by 2015 remains a Congressional requirement for the armed forces.  As the clock runs out, how that goal is going to be met remains to be seen.  One government insider worked out the numbers on the back of a napkin at lunch for me and showed how the figures could be manipulated to meet the congressional requirement by outfitting as few as 12 vehicles.  That was disappointing to see and hopefully the US armed forces will get the life saving technology they need, in the number they need.  The US Army alone has one million vehicles and one third of them would be 333,333, not 12.   I am more concerned about what number the troops on the ground need.  How many driverless conversion kits will the other branches of the armed forces need in addition to the Army’s need to meet the Congressional requirement?

Ed is still waiting for me to finish the autonomous truck I am working on and ship it to him in Afghanistan.  It needs to be able to follow California Rules of the Road as its driving program.  What would California Rules of the Road look like transcribed into LabVIEW?  He wants a driverless truck to bring him the electronic repair parts he needs on the front lines from the supply center, without risking a driver’s life.   So far in his e-mails he has mentioned three drivers killed and one maimed trying to bring him the parts he needs. 

Congress did not specify the technology to use, they specified the result that they wanted.  While remote control technology could meet the requirement and is currently being introduced to combat areas, while it does remove the driver from immediate danger, it does not reduce the number of drivers needed because there is still a driver in the loop.   The technology for autonomous operation would be a “force multiplier” because it would get the work done without the need for a driver.   Unmanned Aerial Vehicles started out with remote control and has moved increasingly to autonomous operation at the request of the operators.  I would expect a similar migration from remote control to autonomous operation will happen in ground vehicles.

AGVs have defined paths (roads, two track trails) and areas (the world) within which they can navigate.  They can move by following a digital path which is defined by their onboard path planning software. The free-ranging style AGV has no physical guide path, making it easier to change the vehicle’s path in the computer software.   Position estimates are needed for the navigation sub system which are made from as many forms of input as is practical.  Precision odometry from the wheels, inertial positioning systems which consists of gyroscopes and accelerometers, machine vision and land mark recognition/triangulation, day time celestial fix, satellite position fix, are just a few of the many methods available. 

There are basically four main types of automatic guided vehicles. These are the unit load, the forklift, the tugger, and the street legal traffic vehicle. Unit load AGVs are powered, wheel based transport vehicles that are designed to carry discrete loads, such as an individual item like a large roll of paper, coil of steel or an automobile engine. They are also made to carry items that are contained on or inside of single carrying or storage units such as pallets, crates, chests and boxes etc.

Forklift AGVs are generally used to transport pallets. These vehicles include counterbalanced, narrow-aisle straddle, and side loading versions. Many forklift AGVs have infrared sensors built onto their forks for pallet interfacing.

Like unit load AGVs, tuggers are also powered, wheel-based transport vehicles. However, tuggers are capable of pulling one or more non-powered, loaded vehicles behind them much like a train does.

Street legal traffic AGV’s are cars, buses, and trucks that have been equipped with guidance systems that mimic safe and courteous drivers on roads and highways.  Since the DARPA series of autonomous vehicle demonstrations 2003 - 2007 they have been designed to follow the California Rules of the Road, which is the most restrictive driving code in the USA and is available online for reference.  It is hoped that road vehicle automation improve traffic safety much as cockpit automation reduced accidents in the commercial airline industry. 

AGVs have definitely become a valuable asset to the industrial world since they are designed to work without depending on constant human contact and they can maneuver themselves in dangerous areas.


The Bomb by Gerard J. DeGroot, c2004 Harvard University Press.
At the library clearance sale, I bought an old library book with a very unusual designed cover. There is a half-dust jacket made of velum so you can see the book cover through it and the book cover itself is a shades of orange fireball. Being something of a pyromaniac myself (Marine Engineer), I am always concerned about the right shade of orange - which indicates proper fuel/air ratio. So the book cover caught my attention. When I looked inside I found that it had been taken out of circulation without having ever been read, the due date slip glued inside had never been stamped and the book had the distinct feel of having never been read. As it turns out, this 3/$1 bargain is the history of the Atomic Bomb, the people who worked on it and more interesting to me, the context of the times in which they worked on this breakthrough research and development project. There is no doubt that their work, so long ago, has great influence on how the political world works today. The people who worked on developing the Atomic Bomb were the scientific rock stars of their time.

As promised, you get to look over my shoulder as I work on my version of a US Army supply truck that can drive itself.  My barn workshop is open from 8 am to 11:30 pm, every day (winter hours) for anyone who wants to learn how robot truck work by helping build one of our own.  This is the technology expected to save one soldiers life a day in war zones and 166 lives a day on US roads.  This is very educational, important work, and a great deal of fun. 

The current situation:  It is 27 degrees F outside right now, the shop propane tank is down to the 30% mark where the redline warning begins - time to call Tri-Gas distributors to have them bring their truck over to fill the tank back up which will cost about $400.  I heat the shop to 40 degrees F most of the time to keep paint and other freezables in here from freezing.  I keep the electronics on so that they stay warm and workable.  I keep a few light on all the time to add a degree or two to the temperature and help minimize the use of propane.  When I can’t stand working in my heavy work coat and get chilled or if volunteers show up to help, I turn the heat up to 68 degrees F, which by my calculations costs about $2 per hour to do.  If I know people are coming over to help or to use the shop for their individual projects I turn the heat up about a hour before they are scheduled to arrive.

TC Tinkers 4-H Robot Club Member, Sandra, giving the Full-Auto signal from the cab of our robot truck.  Building robots is very educational.

Keep track of TC Tinkers 4-H Robot Club developments by joining their Yahoo Newsgroup at: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/TC_TINKERS_4-H_Robot_Club/join

To subscribe to AIMing for Automated Vehicles as a RSS feed: If you are using Internet Explorer to read this page, go to http://feeds.feedburner.com/CTL-AimingForAutomatedVehicles  and add it to your “Favorites” by clicking the little gold star with a green plus sign in your tool bar, then click on “subscribe to this feed…”. To view the feed in the future you go to “Favorites” by clicking on the little gold star and AIMing for Automated Vehicles should be listed there. Click on it and catch up on what is new!


Paul F. Grayson - Chief Engineer
American Industrial Magic, LLC
“small engine and machinery repair”
TC Tinkers 4-H Robot Club
“Science, Engineering, and Technology”
390 4-Mile Rd. S.
Traverse City, MI 49686-8411
(231) 883-4463 Cell
AIM: http://aimagic.org/
TC Tinkers 4-H Robot Club: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/TC_TINKERS_4-H_Robot_Club
CE Magazine: http://www.controleng.com/blog/1180000318.html

Posted by Paul F. Grayson on March 18, 2010

COMMENT - March 20, 2010

In response to: WesTrack/AGVs; The Bomb; The ClubMatt Young commented:

I link back to this site often, but especially when you post about near term technology that you find.
I works best when you separate topics by posts, then a link back gets the user just the information he wants in concise form.
I keep an investment index, and referencing back to a post on a company helps identify the investment opportunities. Technology near to market in transportation automation, that is what I look for.
Good work, much more interesting.
And did you give any comments on Randal OToole and his seminar?
matt Young

No comments
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