A firing range with the size of 165 square kilometers. Used by the Norwegian military for 50 years. Countless unexploded bombs and shells. Clear it at once, please! A gigantic project, and an extremely dangerous one at that. It quickly became clear that clearing the area without endangering human lives would only be possible with remote-controlled systems. But back in 2008, there was no company with the necessary expertise. This moment marked the birth of Steer. So, with the support of the Norwegian construction company Gjermundshaug Group, Steer was founded. Just a few months later, the first remote-controlled excavators began operating, and the first tests with autonomous vehicles were soon underway.
Today, the firing range has been almost completely cleared. 500 tons of unexploded ammunition and metal scrap have been removed by the Norwegian military and the Gjermundshaug Group. This was only possible thanks to the remote-controlled and autonomous construction machines with Steer’s technology on board.
Steer has continuously improved and developed its retrofittable systems on both the hardware and software sides. The technology is now also being used in civilian applications, for example in several large mines in Northern Europe.
For the latest generation of autonomous dump trucks, based on vehicles from Caterpillar, Steer relies on Syslogic’s AI-enabled embedded systems. These serve as the central vehicle controller and process data from cameras, GPS, radar and lidar in parallel. The AI-supported embedded system derives intelligent decisions directly from the evaluated data. As a result, the vehicle is controlled autonomously, can interact with other vehicles and detects obstacles or hazards. The technology works so well that a significant increase in productivity is achieved compared to manually operated vehicles. The autonomous vehicles are faster and safer compared to manually operated ones. They can be used in 24/7 operation if required. They also travel much more economically than conventionally operated vehicles - stop-and-go is avoided, which means less wear and tear, better fuel efficiency and lower emissions.
Naturally, safety considerations also play a role in civilian applications. The huge dump trucks used in mines are cumbersome. They are often used in geographically challenging environments. Thanks to the large number of sensors that Steer integrates into the vehicles, the environment can be recorded very precisely and dangerous situations can be ruled out from the outset. Moreover, the employees who monitor the vehicles are often hundreds of kilometers away. The centralized control of the vehicles also makes ideal use of working time, as employees no longer have to travel to the mine.
The automation of construction machinery is being pursued by vehicle manufacturers worldwide. What is the advantage that Steer offers? We asked Lars Tronsmoen, who heads development at Steer as CTO. Tronsmoen explains, "Gigatrucks will be predominantly autonomous in the near future. All the major vehicle manufacturers are working on that." But Steer offers systems for different categories of vehicles, Tronsmoen says. Further, he said, these can be retrofitted and score with a very attractive price-performance ratio. This would also make the technology interesting for small mines that want to automate an existing vehicle fleet. Vehicles from different manufacturers can be upgraded with the same technology from Steer.
Another key criteria is the high reliability of Steer technology. With many years of experience clearing military terrain, Steer knows how important it is to use only robust and reliable components. Failures or unplanned downtimes cause major logistical and financial expenses for remote-controlled or autonomous vehicles. After all, in such cases, a service team has to be dispatched to a remote area.
The conditions for electronics are very demanding in mining vehicles. Temperature fluctuations range from below freezing to extreme heat. In addition to dust, humidity and moisture, constant vibration poses a challenge. Because of that, Steer uses only rugged components that meet the IP65 protection class or higher in its systems.
This led to the collaboration with embedded specialist Syslogic. Syslogic specializes in AI-capable embedded systems for precisely such conditions. Syslogic's AI rugged computers are among the most robust Nvidia Jetson-based devices available. They are used worldwide in construction machinery, in agricultural technology or in rail vehicles. Both electronics and housing are designed to operate in extreme situations. Lars Tronsmoen says, "The AI computer is the heart of our control system." Due to that Steer made no compromises during the evaluation, which inevitably led to Syslogic’s RSL A3 AI Rugged Computer.
With its integrated Jetson AGX Xavier module from Nvidia, the Syslogic Rugged Computer uses GPU computing power to simultaneously process data from various sensors such as lidar, radar and camera and derive near real-time decisions from it, a process known as inference.
As a manufacturer with its own development and production facilities, Syslogic was also able to adapt the rugged computer to Steer's requirements. Among other things, additional CAN interfaces were integrated, because Steer requires six of them. Furthermore, Syslogic integrated two high-precision GNSS receivers. This not only allows the vehicle to be precisely located, but also the exact orientation of the vehicle can be determined.
Lars Tronsmoen sums up: "The cooperation with Syslogic pays off for us." On the one hand, the rugged computer is precisely created for applications in the mining environment and has proven itself in the field, and on the other hand, the devices are delivered with Nvidia Jetpack SDK preinstalled, says Tronsmoen. The Jetpack SDK provides a comprehensive developer environment including a software library that provides algorithms for computer vision and for image processing. This toolkit significantly reduces time-to-market and makes it relatively easy to add new features.
Steer is currently expanding its market position in Northern Europe. An area that is rich in mineral resources and where new raw material deposits are being discovered all the time. The autonomous dump trucks are ideally suited for remote mines. It is not surprising that inquiries are now also coming in from other countries such as the USA. And even representatives from Caterpillar have been to Norway several times to have Steer's solutions presented to them. Tronsmoen says, "In the first few years, we've gained experience, but now we're ready to expand our market position." Accordingly, the company has quite a few large projects underway. Tronsmoen says, "Partners like Syslogic, who have the same understanding of rugged electronics as we do, help us implement our ideas and achieve our goals."