Federation University researchers have teamed up with Australia’s largest semi-trailer maker to develop a ‘virtual rail’ steering system to make trucks safer for other road users and reduce road damage in urban areas.
The mechatronics and IT researchers from the School of Engineering, Information Technology and Physical Sciences are collaborating with Ballarat company, MaxiTRANS, to produce an active steering system where the rear wheels of a trailer follow the prime mover’s front wheels.
The system, which makes the semi-trailer behave as if it is on rails, aims to eliminate the fundamental problems of off-tracking and corner-cutting in semi-trailers while reducing tyre wear. The system can be retrofitted and will kick in automatically at speeds below 40kph, improving the semi-trailers’ manoeuvrability through towns. This will make the semi-trailers easier for drivers to control and decrease the risk of the trucks causing damage to curbs.
Senior Lecturer in Mechatronics, Dr Gayan Kahandawa, said he hoped the system would be a major breakthrough for the transport industry. Dr Kahandawa and the research team were the recipients of a Road Safety Innovation Fund grant of $193,000 for the project, which continues a long-standing relationship between the university and MaxiTRANS.
“For the last few years, we have been working on modelling and software simulations to prove that this system will work. We have developed small models that show it will work – this grant will allow us to apply the system on a full-size semi-trailer,” Dr Kahandawa said.
“We have already developed the control algorithms and now we are going to develop the controller. MaxiTRANS is building the hardware for us – the steerable axle setup has already been built and we'll be receiving it soon and they will also provide a semi-trailer for the testing.”
The researchers began their work on the steerable axle more than five years ago, but the idea was hatched by another Federation researcher about 15 years before that.
“Dr Ian Spark, who is an Adjunct Research Fellow, got a patent for this technology about 20 years ago, and then he applied his work completely on paper. All the calculations and everything was put on paper, but no one ever tried to implement these plans – nothing happened,” Dr Kahandawa said.
“So, what we did is take his work and then model it in software using MATLAB and then we slowly developed his set of equations into an algorithm. Now, we are at the implementation stage and the grant will enable us to try this on the full-size semi-trailer.”
Dr Kahandawa said the researchers were now waiting for the equipment to be delivered, with some of the work temporarily halted by the COVID-19 restrictions which have stopped them getting into their labs at the Gippsland Campus. They are targeting a year of lab testing in 2021 and another year of real-world testing in 2022. This could be undertaken at an airport or unused car park.
Other active steering systems are in use internationally, but the technology used in the project was more advanced than those already on the market. These active steering systems are typically calculated from the hitch angle – the point between the semi-trailer and the prime mover which becomes an angle when the prime mover steers off a straight line.
“What we are doing is we are starting from the steering wheel angle – the system is starting much earlier compared to others. The path of the prime mover is determined by the steering wheel angle and it takes time for that to be reflected in the hitch angle. Our system will have a faster response time compared to existing systems.”Dr Gayan Kahandawa
Another potential benefit of the steering system is it could enable customers to run longer B-Double configurations. Dr Kahandawa said the simulations showed that super B-Doubles, which can be longer than 30 metres, can behave as normal semi-trailers with the system.
“This would allow freight companies to use the larger Super B-Doubles on their inter-state routes. These are trucks that would normally avoid metropolitan roads, so using these would reduce the number of trips and minimise double handling in distribution centres.”
“There are many transport companies that this would be appealing to.”