Caterpillar's autonomous vehicles may be used by NASA to mine the moon and build a lunar base

Key Points
  • Caterpillar's autonomous and remote-controlled mining equipment could very well find itself on the moon when NASA is scheduled to return to the lunar surface in 2024.
  • Operator-less drilling and digging machines will mine water, oxygen-rich rocks and moon dust for use in 3-D printing of various materials.
  • This is part of CEO Jim Umpleby's goal to grow Caterpillar's digital and autonomy businesses as a way to develop new profit streams for the company.
  • On Wednesday, Caterpillar reported earnings that badly missed forecasts and lowered full-year earnings guidance.
A NASA rendering of building a permanent base on the moon, using autonomous vehicles like those developed by Caterpillar.

Caterpillar has been synonymous with big, heavy equipment — for farming, construction and mining — since Holt Manufacturing and C. L. Best Tractor merged in 1925 to form the Peoria, Illinois-based company. Over the years, tons of innovation have been built into the iconic yellow products, too, from the Model 20 Track-Type Tractor introduced in 1927 to the ginormous engines that helped power the Apollo 11 mission to the moon 50 years ago.

Coincidentally, one of Cat's latest breakthroughs is self-driving, or autonomous, and remote-controlled mining equipment, which could very well find itself on the moon when NASA is scheduled to return to the lunar surface in 2024, with plans to build a permanent base near the orb's south pole, part of the Artemis program.

Just as on terrestrial sites, Caterpillar fully or semi-autonomous bulldozers, graders, loaders and dump trucks could be utilized to build roads, housing and other infrastructure. Operator-less drilling and digging machines might mine water, oxygen-rich rocks and moon dust for use in 3-D printing of various materials.

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"We've had a longstanding relationship with NASA," said Denise Johnson, group president of Caterpillar's resource industries unit, which produces and markets mining and large construction products and accounted for $10 billion of Cat's total $54.7 billion in sales and revenues in 2018.

Developing autonomous equipment is part of Caterpillar CEO Jim Umpleby's goal to continuously improve upon Caterpillar's legacy of innovation, as well as to generate new revenues in the face of competition and, more recently, the impact of tariffs in the ongoing U.S.–China trade war. Currently the company derives 5%–10% of its sales from China. On Wednesday, Caterpillar reported its third-quarter revenues and earnings, which missed estimates.

Most recently, NASA and Cat collaborated on a research project from 2004 to 2013. "The partnership focused on two technology areas: construction and robotic operations," said the space agency's spokesperson Clare Skelly in an email. "There are many synergies between what NASA needs to meet exploration goals and Caterpillar technologies used every day on Earth."

A long-term vision of the future

Caterpillar's initial R&D efforts to produce a fleet of autonomous equipment for the Earth-based mining industry date back to 1985. "By the early 1990s, we had two autonomous [hauling] trucks running at a quarry in Texas," said Michael Murphy, chief engineer in the company's surface mining and technology organization. His team has worked on GPS, radar, LIDAR, onboard diagnostics, artificial intelligence and other software and hardware technologies necessary for operating autonomous and remote-controlled vehicles, offered today under Cat's Command and MineStar brands.

While Murphy's team toiled away during the 1990s and early 2000s — sometimes in partnership with outside tech companies, university engineers, DARPA and even Cat's mining customers — "the industry wasn't ready for autonomy at that time," he said. "They didn't see the value proposition."

There are many synergies between what NASA needs to meet exploration goals and Caterpillar technologies used every day on Earth.
Clare Skelly
NASA spokesperson

Even so, that didn't deter Caterpillar's top brass from sticking to their long-term autonomy strategy, which along with the vehicles included developing technology to operate them within an entire mining operation, with the goal of increasing productivity, efficiency, cost controls and worker safety.

"It's great if you can provide a piece of equipment, but how it works in a system — because a mine is a system of equipment that works together, almost like a factory — becomes really important," Johnson explained. "Autonomy knits it all together to make those operations more efficient. It's a great example of a shift in our business model."

Caterpillar's strategy is starting to pay off — and may give the company a jump on competitors such as Komatsu, Hitachi, Sandvik and Volvo, equipment makers also selling autonomous equipment. "We have more autonomous sites than any other provider," Johnson said.

Autonomy is becoming a key component in the current evolution within the $683 billion global industry, comprising the top 40 mining companies. A report from Zion Market Research estimates that the global mining automation market will nearly double, to $6.18 billion in 2025 from $3.65 billion last year.

"Three or four years ago not many mining companies were thinking about digital and innovation," said Andrew Swart, global leader of Deloitte's mining and metals practice. "Today there's a rapid adoption of technology — replacing people with autonomous vehicles, automating mining processes and more digitization in back-office operations. It's an industry in pretty rapid transformation, with some companies challenging existing business models."

Dozens of Caterpillar's autonomous hauling trucks like this one are being used by Rio Tinto at its Pilbara iron ore mine in Australia.
Rio Tinto

Caterpillar is leading the autonomy revolution with both its vehicles and operational software. "We now have seven customers and we're on 11 different sites," Johnson said, "mining oil sands, iron ore, copper and gold and soon coal." Cat has deployed 220 of its own trucks, both brand-new autonomous vehicles — costing from $3.5 million to $5 million each — and existing ones that have been retrofitted.

"We're also converting competitors' trucks," Johnson said. "Our solution needs to be interoperable. It's a competitive decision we don't take lightly, because we recognize there are other [autonomy] providers."

Caterpillar autonomy customers are reporting at least a 30% improvement in productivity when compared to manned operations, Murphy said. One customer, he added, has announced an 80% improvement in safety incidents since introducing autonomous hauling.

Testing site for mining autonomy

Most of the autonomy activity is occurring at mine sites outside the U.S., although Newmont Goldcorp, headquartered near Denver, has tested two semiautonomous Caterpillar underground loaders at its Leeville gold mines in northern Nevada. The pilot program has since increased to six fully autonomous loaders, according to Northern Nevada Business View.

London-based mining giant Rio Tinto began operating autonomous equipment at an iron-ore mine in western Australia's Pilbara region a decade ago. "We have grown our autonomous fleet to more than 130 trucks, both from Caterpillar and Komatsu, and 26 drills," said Stephen McIntosh, group executive, growth and innovation, at Rio Tinto.

To transport tons of material from the site to port facilities in the region, Rio Tinto has developed AutoHaul, a fully autonomous heavy-haul train. "Each autonomous train comprises two or three locomotives and some 240 ore cars, making them each 2.4 km [1.49 miles] long," McIntosh said. "In essence, these are the world's largest and longest robots."

The world's longest robot: Autohaul, Rio Tinto's autonomous heavy-haul train
Rio Tinto

Rio Tinto has incorporated nearly complete autonomy into its new Koodaideri iron ore mine in Pilbara, including autonomous trucks, drills and trains, McIntosh said. While there are limited personnel at both the Pilbara sites, the mining operations, as well as AutoHaul, are monitored from Rio Tinto's control center hundreds of miles away in Perth.

The Pilbara mines are located in an isolated, hazardous area, presenting a workforce challenge, which dovetails perfectly with Caterpillar's autonomy strategy. "Customers are finding it difficult to operate in those remote locations, getting personnel in and out in a consistent way, which drives the value proposition" of autonomy, Johnson said. "The application of the technology becomes a necessity to make it work from a value-add perspective."

NASA's lunar ambitions

That same strategy could apply to NASA's Artemis program on the moon, not to mention Mars and asteroids, which are being studied as potential sites for so-called space mining. Yet the notion of extracting platinum, gold and other valuable minerals from heavenly bodies and propelling them back to Earth is more fiction than science. "The economic analysis doesn't make sense," said Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, when you consider the costs to identify, extract, process, refine and transport them. Combined, they're virtually out of this world.

A rendering of an autonomous driller being used to mine water under the lunar surface.

More realistic, Abbud-Madrid said, is the idea of using a variety of resources to sustain extraterrestrial bases for long periods of time. NASA has been exploring the concept, known as in-situ resource utilization (ISRU), for its outer-space missions — which brings us back to Caterpillar. "ISRU would require infrastructure and a suite of supporting capabilities that can operate with a certain degree of autonomy," said Skelly, though declining to name Cat as a potential partner.

The difficult logistics and the multi-billions it would cost to rocket mining and construction equipment into space still need to be worked out, but in the meantime, Caterpillar continues to prepare for otherworldly opportunities. One example is the company's primary sponsorship of NASA's annual Robotic Mining Competition, a university-level event held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. More than 45 collegiate teams design and build remote-controlled mining robots to traverse a simulated Martian terrain.

Whether or not Cat's autonomous equipment will someday be operating on Mars and the moon remains to be seen. "I don't know if we've thought that far ahead," Johnson said. More immediate is continuing to develop its autonomy strategy in an increasing competitive marketplace. "We always want to challenge ourselves to think outside the box," she concluded.