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Autonomous, augmented reality and plant innovations at CONEXPO 2020


Despite the onset of COVID-19, CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020 successfully rode out the storm and has been praised as one of the best events yet. Steve Franklin discusses some of the exciting innovations to potentially come out of the event for the quarrying industry. 

When I arrived in Las Vegas for CONEXPO 2020, there was news about cancellations due to COVID-19 and the number of exhibitors that may (or may not) have pulled out. Thankfully, despite some cancellations (less than one per cent of international visitors), CONEXPO 2020 was as big and interesting as ever, with some 130,000 attendees and 2300 exhibitors spread out over 25ha.

My primary interest for attending CONEXPO this year was to see the latest advances in autonomous operation of equipment that would be suitable for the quarrying industry. Unfortunately, Volvo Construction Equipment, a leader in autonomous haulage, had pulled their staff at short notice. My discussions with both Caterpillar and Komatsu representatives yielded no specific information about existing or planned autonomous haul trucks for the quarry sector, despite both being strong in this area in the mining sector. We have several quarrying customers who are keenly interested in autonomous haulage.

The only autonomous machine on display was an excavator from Built Robotics.  Interestingly, Australia is an early customer, with Queensland contractor MPC Kinetic trialling a 36-tonne machine in late 2019 to dig pipeline trenches. This successful trial has resulted in the two companies partnering to begin a roll out of fully automated excavators.1 Since this time, Built Robotics have also rolled out an autonomous dozer – fingers crossed for a haul truck as well!

Sandvik Mining & Rock Technology had a large display, with a focus on technology. TIM3D, Sandvik’s drill rig hole navigation and measure while drilling system, was on display. The display also featured an innovative augmented reality display system that used the Microsoft HoloLens device to help a customer visualise the layout of their mobile crushing equipment. There was also a very impressive, tablet-based augmented reality system that allowed you to see a specific machine and then zoom into it to be able to look under covers and inside the machine.

While most people think of CONEXPO as somewhere to go and see new products and services, it is also a tremendous opportunity to gain new knowledge by attending the hundreds of different presentations and lectures.

I was fortunate to attend lectures by Komatsu on its experiences with autonomous haul truck operation in the mining industry and by Trimble on autonomous operation generally. What I hadn’t fully realised was that the move to autonomous operation is not necessarily a single jump, but a gradient scale from Level Zero (No Autonomy) through to Level 5 (Full Autonomy), as outlined in the Autonomous Operations Maturity Model.2

Interestingly, we are already seeing Level 3 (Advanced Regulatory Autonomy) operation in some quarry sectors. A good example of this is the Epiroc drill rigs that Donnelly Blasting Services are running that can not only place the mast automatically at the start of the drilling process but also change rods in and out of the hole. Reports indicate that autonomous operations in this mode are exceeding the productivity and fuel burn achievable by even the best
human operators.

The Trimble presenter noted that Level 3 can be the most risky – ie potentially tedious so that the human operator’s attention is not necessarily aligned with the autonomous drilling process when it is most needed!

Patrons inspect the new 115-tonne Komatsu WA800-8 wheel loader.


My second interest in attending CONEXPO was to see the current state of play in augmented reality and geospatial devices.

Possibly one of the most interesting things I saw was on the PropellerAero stand – I was very lucky to have CEO Rory San Miguel walk me through the new DirtMate product.3

DirtMate is a very smart, simple system that has the potential to completely change how we measure load and haul productivity. If you haven’t heard about it, it is worth jumping on PropellerAero’s site to find out about it. We are eagerly looking forward to getting it into the hands of our clients in the near future.

The Trimble stand was huge and covered a tremendous range of products and services. Of interest to me was the Trimble SmartHaul product (released at CONEXPO) and the updated version of Trimble InSight Dashboard. This tool brings together all the different data streams from across a quarry and “dashboards” them for easy access and fast decision making (see page 34).

Also, on the technology side, we had the opportunity to see the new KillerBee integrated aggregate and concrete pricing, quoting and ordering tool. KillerBee has developed a web-based system that allows a customer to not only order their own material but track it right to their job site.

I also saw systems that can dynamically track stock at both quarry and client sites and trigger ordering processes to automatically maintain appropriate stock levels based on system orders.

I am a strong supporter of the use of GPS machine guidance on quarry loading tools. We now have two clients using this type of equipment with very positive feedback. One difficulty, however, has been the high cost of these systems and the fact that they are generally more construction-focused than for quarries. Late in the show I came across a new vendor in this space – Hemisphere GNSS.4 An initial quick look resulted in several visits back to the exhibit to get a better understanding of their product range which seems perfectly suited to the applications we have in mind in the quarrying industry and at an appropriate price point.

The rear of Case’s concept, methane-powered Tetra wheel loader.


My third interest, of course, was to see the new equipment. I grew up around earthmoving machinery and still have a keen interest in it. Of note was the new 115-tonne Komatsu WA800-8 wheel loader. This is a very impressive machine and a major update on the WA800-3. 

Also, on show was the new Caterpillar 395 excavator. This is a replacement for the Cat 390F and is a rugged, high tech piece of equipment. Of note in the cab was the two huge operator displays, one for equipment information and camera display and the other for machine guidance. I saw a similar technology in the new Cat D7 tractor which also builds on the idea of fully integrated machine guidance and big, easy to use touch-type displays.

Case was unique in showing concept designs including a methane-powered wheel loader and an electric backhoe. John Deere showed a hybrid large wheel loader (amongst a wide range of other equipment).

As you can imagine, what I have described above is just a snapshot of a very large show, one so large indeed that you can
be hard pressed to walk every part of it
in a week.

A tremendous thank you to all the exhibitors who made the effort to show their products and services – CONEXPO really is a show like no other!  

Steve Franklin is the principal consultant of Cement & Aggregate Consulting, based in Brisbane.


  1. MPC Kinetic x Built Robotics – A new era in construction.
  2. Hill D. What is autonomous operations? ARC Advistory Group blog, 23 Jan 2020.
  3. https://www.propelleraero.com/dirtmate/
  4. https://www.hemispheregnss.com/industries/construction-mining/

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