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by Mike Zazaian September 25, 2006 - 8:21am, 45 Comments

A caterpillar bulldozer

The company that inspired the Tonka truck with its yellow bulldozers and steam shovels is re-defining itself by dumping billions of dollars into research for a next generation of self-propelled, robotic construction machines.

Caterpillar, based in Peoria, Illinois, plans to spend $1.3 billion dollars on research and development this year, a substantial portion of which will go toward robotic machinery. The company hopes that within a decade, its machines will do their jobs without a man on board, perhaps even operating with complete automation. Said Mark Pflederer, the chief technology officer at Caterpillar:

Ten or 15 years down the road it’s not too much of a stretch to think that we could run multiple bulldozers, wheel loaders or trucks on a site and move the operators to a remote location.

The $1.3 Billion dollars spent by Caterpillar on R&D represents a 30% increase in such spending over last year, and more four times that which the company spent only four years ago. GPS units are also being integrated into prototypes, hypothetically allowing remote control of the robotic machines from anywhere on the globe.

Caterpillar is also innovating with a new line of environmentally friendly construction vehicles. A hydrogen-cell-powered underground mining vehicle is in development at the company’s Mossville campus, just north of Peoria. Unlike the robotic equipment, hydrogen-powered machines are only about a year off, with Engineers developing a proof-of-concept vehicle by next spring, and a production model by Summer of 2007. Said Pflederer of the company’s forward-thinking attitude:

Maybe it’s just remote control. Maybe it’s completely autonomous. Automation is our long-term dream.

[via Reuters]