Digging by remote control

The Canterbury earthquakes have generated a major technological breakthrough in digger operations. HUGH DE LACY reports.

HE GOT THE HEAVE-HO from Ashburton High School at 15 for an unscholarly interest in explosives, but Gerard Daldry’s limited formal education didn’t stop him developing the world’s first remote-controlled diggers.

p44-Digging-by-remote-300x300He’s now got four of them that have collectively cost $1.8 million, but they’ve also taken him into talks with major manufacturers interested in fitting his system to a production line.

It was the Canterbury earthquakes that created the need for such technology, in situations where houses were left hanging over the edge of collapsing cliffs, making them too dangerous to demolish from either above or below.

For the first several years after the 2010-2011 quakes that killed 185 people, the irreparably damaged houses just sat where they had ended up while the authorities scratched their heads about how to make them and the cliff-faces safe.

Gerard Daldry started out his civil construction career in the early 1980s with Bill Richardson’s Farrier Waimak in Christchurch before launching out on his own in 1997 with a 400 horsepower International S-line truck, later adding a 1987 Mack truck which became the start of a collection of old Macks now numbering more than a dozen.

In 2002 he found himself in Christchurch buying up a failed demolition and trucking business, and steadily building it back up until, by the time the quakes arrived, he was in an excellent position to hook into the $40 billion clean-up.

p44-Digging-by-remote-300x300-2A procession of big international companies – such as Ceres and Mackey’s from the United States, and McGee from the United Kingdom – came to Christchurch and tried to figure out a way to make the cliffs, especially those lining the road out to the suburb of Sumner, safe again, but none could come up with a solution.

So Daldry and his company ProTranz put their hands up.

Daldry decided that the only way diggers could operate in such a dangerous environment – where cliffs and houses might collapse on top of them if they worked from the bottom, or beneath them if they worked from the top – was by remote control.

So he and a couple of his staff, who had previously built nothing more than their own digger-buckets and truck trays, set about getting their machines to operate without a driver aboard.

“We tap into [the diggers’] systems and manipulate their controls by a whole different valve-bank,” Daldry says.

He’s not prepared to say much more than that about the system his company has developed: it’s under tight wraps for obvious commercial reasons, but Daldry tells Contractor that relatively few modifications had to be made to the diggers themselves, and all the work was in setting up the remote controls.

To get a decent view of the digger at work, the operator at first rode in a cherry-picker and, when this became inadequate for the higher and trickier cliffs, it was done from the cockpit of a helicopter hovering above the site.
To get a decent view of the digger at work, the operator at first rode in a cherry-picker and, when this became inadequate for the higher and trickier cliffs, it was done from the cockpit of a helicopter hovering above the site.

The net result is the digger driver at a safe distance from the machine, guiding it with a control panel.

But operating that keyboard is no kids’ game: denied the seat-of-the-pants information that the operator usually gleans from sitting inside the machine as it works, he has to develop highly sensitive skills of visualisation and imagination to take their place.

And it’s a tricky job, exhausting even.

Daldry says that such is the concentration required to work the digger remotely, the operator has to take a break at least every 45 minutes.

To get a decent view of the digger at work, the operator at first rode in a cherry-picker and, when this became inadequate for the higher and trickier cliffs, it was done from the cockpit of a helicopter hovering above the site.

Initially the chopper was a Robinson R22, but it didn’t like updraft off the cliff-face, so either a B3 or a Squirrel was called in, and pilot Mark Reid quickly learned to coordinate the positioning of the aircraft to give the operator beside him the best possible view.

Early in the development process Daldry had tried fitting cameras to the digger for the benefit of the remote operator, but when none of them was able to provide the breadth of view essential to the job the cherry-picker and the chopper took their place.

The first digger converted to remote control was a Komatsu PC270, and he followed that up with conversions to a PC138 and a PC88.

Obviously there was a potentially global market for the technology ProTranz had developed, but when Komatsu showed no interest, Daldry went to the British firm JCB, demonstrating his conversions on one of its JS220s.

ProTranz, just a small company before the quakes, has ridden the subsequent construction boom to grow to a staff of 50-odd, operating 38 trucks, 30 trailers and 20-odd diggers.

It occupies three yards in Christchurch, one of them housing the collection of every model of Mack truck assembled in New Zealand.

Daldry estimates ProTranz has demolished about 50 clifftop houses, a typical job being the 18 that loomed frighteningly over the Redwoods School, to the degree that Minister of Education Hekia Parata initially made the highly unpopular decision to close the school.

Almost certainly because of what ProTranz’s remote-controlled diggers have been able to achieve, the minister has since changed her mind, and Redwoods School will be rebuilt, albeit largely on an alternative site.

The interest in Daldry’s remote-control systems is such that he’s made no fewer than eight trips to Europe in the past two years, and has also visited Nepal to offer solutions to challenging demolition problems in Kathmandu, which was smashed by earthquakes last year.

One of those trips was to the Netherlands to accept an Innovation Award at the World Demolition Awards.

Daldry’s immensely proud of his company’s achievement, spreading the credit to the staff who helped him – people just like him, he says, who learned their skills on the job and proved capable of world-leading innovation without a string of degrees after their names.

And it takes little imagination to see their technology being applied to a much wider range of machinery than just diggers, to the degree that remote-control might have as big an impact on civil construction as driverless cars are having on the motor industry.

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