U.S. Army Reserve engineers experiment with remote-controlled bulldozer

By Sgt. 1st Class Jason Proseus 416th Theater Engineer Command

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For years the heavy equipment industry has been using remote control technology to operate massive pieces of equipment from a safe location. This allows the machines to be operated in very dangerous environments without putting any lives in unnecessary risks.

U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers from the 317th Engineer Construction Company (ECC), Homewood, Ill., supported an experiment conceptualized by a collaboration between the Maneuver Support Center of Excellence (MSCOE), Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Caterpillar’s Edwards Demonstration and Learning Center, Edwards, Ill., Product Management Unmanned Ground Vehicles (PDMUGV), a force projection manager for Program Executive Offices Combat Support and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS), out of Warren, Mich., and researchers and experiment data collectors from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC).

“We saw the commercial application, and it was a no-brainer for the military application. It was like, ‘Why don’t we do this?’ ” said William Dahms, MSCOE Project Planner for Robotics, PDMUGV

The goal of the experiment was to take U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers with different levels of dozer operating experience, and test their ability to operate a D7R-II dozer using remote controls.

“A lot of the things we try to do with the [Robotics Enhancement Program] is to demonstrate, or to show technology to Army leadership as it emerges,” Dahms said.

The tests conducted at the Caterpillar facility in Edwards were historically dangerous scenarios; breeching a surface laid minefield, tank ditch, crater, and rubble pile, that a commander might call on horizontal engineers to accomplish if a breeching team weren’t readily available. 

“I had to clear a minefield outside of the base once, because I was the best operator in my unit, and you need to be really good to do that. After the 20th mine detonated, I had to walk away. It was just too much. The 21st mine went off as I was backing out, and threw the track on my dozer,” said Master Sgt. Joseph Dwan, an instructor supervisor at the U.S. Air Force Engineer School, Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., of his experience, stationed at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan.

Dwan used to be in the Army, and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2005 while he was in the 341st Engineer Construction Company. “When you have experienced operators, you don’t want them to be out of commission because of something like this. And, that’s why having a system like this would be so useful,” said Dwan.

The original dozers use a “pilot” hydraulic system; which uses low pressure hydraulic lines, actuated by the operator’s levers, which then controls the flow of high pressure hydraulic lines, operating the different hydraulic rams of the implements on the dozer. The technicians at Caterpillar replaced this system with an Electro-Hydraulic Valve (EHV) system. This allowed the technicians to link the electric controls to the Operator Control Unit (OCU).

“The system will not make someone a better operator. It will take the operators experience, and with a little familiarization, allow them to operate the equipment at their current skill level,” said Dwan.

You can’t take someone off the street and expect them to be able to operate the bulldozer the way someone with experience can. “There are many things you have to know about how a dozer works, and that only comes with experience, constantly operating the equipment,” Dwan continued.

Younger operators were able to figure out the different method of controlling the machines remotely, due to the generational capacity of video game console experience, but the older generations caught on in time.

“Using cameras, and not being able to see what you’re doing, and relying on the cameras all the way, has a great amount of difficulty,” said Staff Sgt. Jonathan Kline, a horizontal construction supervisor from the 317th ECC. “It’s about what I predicted. I like it though. It’s interesting, and I think it could be very useful.”

The experiment took place over about two weeks, with safety and classroom instruction followed by research at the Caterpillar facility in Edwards.


Editor's note: The original story can be viewed on the U.S. Army Reserve website.