At the September NFPA/FPIC meeting, Peter Bleday, head of Danfoss Power Solutions autonomous vehicles group in Cambridge, Mass., discussed how the mobile industry has embraced more advanced technologies like autonomy, digitization and connectivity. In the process, he explained, Danfoss has had to expand its own product offerings and its PLUS+1 control platform, and also rely on technology partners to leverage and enhance the value they’re delivering to customers.
“Danfoss is an 88-year-old company manufacturing everything from pumps, motors, and traditional hydraulic components all the way through software and electronic components,” he said. We try to keep a leading position across all industries and really focus on application knowledge and specific customer needs. “The other thing we spend a lot of time on is investment in new technologies, whether it be digitization, connectivity, electrification or, in my case, autonomy.” Our first autonomous vehicle debuted in 2017 at Agritechnica, and everything we learn we try to make useful to the fluid power industry as a whole, said Bleday.
“At its core, our PLUS+1 operating system is integral on the software side of all of our components, whether that be electronics or even drivers and controls for pumps, motors, steering and so on,” he continued. It includes a visual-based software programming tool, libraries that range from basic logic for components to higher-level tasks like work functions, propulsion, and autonomous operations. It includes more than 300 software blocks and 200 compliance blocks for straightforward design and fast hardware integration — all in an intuitive, drag-and-drop environment. And engineers can test and iterate applications in virtual environments and get a vehicle to market quickly and economically. Lastly, PLUS+1 connect services focus on condition monitoring and connecting the vehicle to the cloud. “It brings together a hardware system and a control system very quickly into one software environment,” he said.
As an example, Bleday discussed how PLUS+1 autonomy relates to the broader PLUS+1 platform. Autonomy relies on a powerful controller capable of handling numerous, high-end sensors. Rather than spending time and expense developing the expertise in-house, Danfoss has expanded sensing capabilities by bringing third-party products into the PLUS+1 system.
The goal is to provide autonomous functionality and improve the safety, productivity and precision of a vehicle. One interesting case is a vineyard sprayer. These machines have grown larger over the years due to labor shortages, the lack of experienced operators, and the need for higher productivity. Precision control of equipment and sprayers is critical because if vines get damaged they can take years to regrow, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. Complicating matters, spray nozzles between rows may be out of the operator’s line-of-sight.
The same issues hold in the construction industry, where inexperienced operators are replacing 30-year veterans. Successfully completing tasks like soil compaction and asphalt rolling require well-honed skills, or else costly rework will be needed or the road will quickly deteriorate.
And lastly, there is a dire need for precision among airport ground support vehicles. Luggage loaders, service and fuel vehicles, and portable stairways that inadvertently collide with jets parked on the tarmac can delay departures, force inspections, and remove from the aircraft from service to repair the damage. This is a multimillion dollar issue in this industry.
“So,” Bleday asked, “how do we leverage the PLUS+1 platform, our autonomous controls and our partners’ capabilities to solve these problems?” That involves what he terms the layers of vehicle intelligence.
At one end we have the execution layer, the pumps, motors, valves, steering, everything that physically propels or executes work functions on a vehicle.
Next is the control layer, the controller, HMI, joystick interface, steering wheel or any interface that guides the execution layer on what to do.
One more level up is the decision layer, which is normally filled by the operator. (Actually, an operator normally handles the next three layers; decision, planning and perception.) Automating some tasks on a vehicle requires more computing power and control functionality, to replace the brain of that operator. We see a lot more higher-level industrial computers and software coming into the industry, he explained.
The planning layer often involves the machine moving to a specific location to perform a task. The machine interaction can be as simple as interfacing through a display to an operator sitting in the vehicle, or as complex as a sophisticated mining management system that operates multiple autonomous vehicles all at once.
And lastly is the perception layer. This is where Danfoss is leveraging partners for GPS, radar, LIDAR and other sensors that are increasingly essential as vehicles become more autonomous for operator assistance and operator augmentation control.
These advanced sensors, which might have been cost prohibitive 10 years ago, are now affordable thanks to extensive R&D efforts. Because it is virtually impossible for a company to make everything across the board and cover every single use, Danfoss focuses on partnerships with experts like Ouster for LIDAR, Preco radars and Carnegie Robotics for positioning capabilities.
That holds a lot of advantages, said Bleday. Instead of OEMs needing to research and vet suppliers, obtain hardware and drivers, and write software that can take months, Danfoss houses all the necessary information in PLUS+1 system. That makes it as simple as drag-and-drop; even those who aren’t software developers can now integrate capabilities like LIDAR into their applications.
And that’s significant. When we look at a LIDAR, massive amounts of data needs to be instantaneously managed by the vehicle’s control systems, said Bleday. One of our LIDARs generates 656,000 data points per second, which includes distances, ranges, angles, as well as the intensity being returned. That data from the perception layer feeds into the decision layer, and turns the data into useful information for the control and execution layers to actually move the vehicle or alert the operator.
Danfoss is also expanding its partners in other areas, such as electric linear actuators, HMIs and keypads, and other electronic devices that can be used within any vehicle. So not only does the PLUS+1 platform meld together all of these Danfoss components, but now, we bring in these third-party components that enhance the value on the vehicle, enhance the capabilities of the vehicle and really drive improvement, he said.
So in the case of vineyards — and really across all agriculture applications —the PLUS+1 system can guide a vehicle down the center of the row while the operator can now focus on things like managing spray flows that lead to better yields, better quality and higher productivity.
With roller and compactor applications, using navigation, the operator can simply just drive the first pass or define the work area, shape or form, and then turn to a compaction management system on the vehicle, integrated through PLUS+1 or the vehicle control system itself. It reduces the number of passes, improves overlap quality, and minimizes the amount of rework and overall project costs.
And lastly, in cases where a vehicle must connect to an aircraft or another vehicle — often in dark, dirty, rainy or icy conditions — installing simple sensors, be it LIDAR or radar, lets the vehicle find the connect point with high precision and take the experience of the operator out of the mix. And obstacle detection and warning systems improve safety despite limited visibility.
By integrating all of these sensors into one platform, OEMs can bring machines to market faster, said Bleday. And with partners, it’s even faster because the capabilities are available directly off the shelf. We’ve really focused on these partner integrations, but also bringing in more of these advanced sensors and similar capabilities into one collection speeds up subsystem and system level development.