Remote places

13 April 2020


Julian Champkin looks at the latest remote control systems for cranes.

When operating a crane, the view from the cab is often obscured. The cab is in any case, almost by definition, a boom-length away from the business end of the crane where the hook and the load are. Remote control of many crane types has moved from a luxury add-on to all but standard.

Some manufacturers design their own; some fit controls from specialist companies; some users retro-fit remotes to their existing equipment. A variety are on offer, and they are getting more capable, and more sophisticated, all the time.

One of the segments where remotes are most in demand is on truck-mounted cranes, and particularly knucklebooms. “A large portion of our business is directly with manufacturers and has been so for many years,” says Martin Westerling, product manager for Scanreco.

“However, our products can be implemented in any type of crane or machine as the hydraulics and communication protocols are standardized and do not differ much between different cranes and machines. But in our experience the days of retrofitting remotes in volume are long gone.

Instead, remote control is a standard commodity offered by the manufacturers nowadays.” Other controls manufacturers do, however, still see demand from end users. Simon Robinson, technical director of Iregasa, UK distributors for equipment makers Danfoss, says, “We sell both to manufacturers and to crane owners, end-users wanting to retrofit their cranes.

"Some have bought their cranes as basic versions, cheaply, then realised that remote control would give them advantages that they could really do with. End users are roughly half our market.”

REMdevice, based in Italy, focuses even more on retrofitting and aftersales. Denni Toniolo, marketing manager, says: “Installation is very simple. There is only the receiver that needs to be installed in the crane. An engineer or an electrician can make the necessary connections very quickly. Our main business in the lifting sector is in construction cranes but we are also focusing on hydraulic cranes. We mainly sell for retrofitting and to crane rental operators, but we are implementing marketing activities to work also directly with manufacturers.”

For knuckleboom manufacturers, remote control systems are increasingly a key selling point. The cranes particularly benefit from remote control, and it is easy to see why. Delivery and unloading of goods to a building site is frequently a one-man job, and to unhook one load and attach the next the operator will have to be continually moving between the crane controls on the truck and the load at its deposited position. Remote controls make that unnecessary.

Hiab are major producers of knucklebooms. “Overall worldwide we see an increase in usage” says their control systems product manager Lennart Andersson.

“Safety is one of the most important factors, but so too is being able to be more precise and being closer to the job that needs to be done. Imagine positioning big glass plates where delicate and accurate movements are required. This can be only done close to the site with the use of a remote control.”

Hiab offers remotes as standard on many of their models and as an option on others. “Our remote controls are all developed according to our own design. This means that we can incorporate the functions and information that are useful to the operators.” Because nowadays data flow is a two-way process, from operator to crane and vice versa.

“By using advanced displays we can deliver more information, ranging from stability charts to handling extra capacity loads; and all that data is available at a finger’s touch. “We have several models, such as the XSDrive and CombiDrive families, each with different layouts and with different numbers of levers and/or joystick variants.

Battery capacity is designed to support a day of work, and where that should be highly intense we provide a second battery to keep the work moving on.” Hyva builds knucklebooms in Reggio Emilia in northern Italy, where synergy with their electronic suppliers is, they say, an advantage.

“Electronics are becoming ever more important of course” says global product manager Riccardo Cuppi. “Integrating IT with connectivity of cranes on the cloud is the future.”

Hyva has standard and miniature versions of its controllers. “We offer options of six or eight levers on the transmitter, with three or four joysticks” says Cuppi. “The operator can choose neck, shoulder or belly belts as he likes. The technology is high-frequency radio. We also have Bluetooth versions, which operate at around 2.4GHz. The laws of physics mean that those frequencies are limited in their range. For example the range of 2.4GHZ signals is less than 100m; at higher frequencies we can reach 300m. In practice, of course, an operator unloading a truck would not be so far away; but he might be, say, on top of a building 40m away. But even at that distance he is isolated from his truck. Our transmitters and receiver help alleviate that.

“Delivery of materials is often a one-man operation. If you are on the third or fourth floor of a building, unloading your truck, you would not hear buzzer alarms from it, or know of changes in engine speeds and the like. So feedback, from the truck to the controller, is very important. And even an operator standing beside his truck would have his eyes and his concentration on the job, not always on the control-box display. So we have vibrator alarms, for alerting him when he is close to overload or stability limits. It increases his feeling of being close to and part of the crane and of being in control.

“Our graphic display shows dynamic load diagrams as well. As the load moves, the stabilisation and available target positions are shown.

And the lift can be simulated in advance. It can be that the operator drives the truck into place, opens and places the stabiliser beams and opens the crane, only to find that the truck is badly positioned and he cannot safely follow the plan he had in mind.

"So he has to close up the crane and stabilisers, move the truck to a better position, and start again. With our system, before he opens the stabilisers the operator can simulate the lift and if necessary can revise his plan. He can see from the graphic display the positions he can lift to. As the load on the truck changes, it can recalculate the theoretical capacity of the lift so he can understand immediately where he can send the load.

“Our control systems are for all capacity cranes, small to large. As well as the dynamic load diagram our remote operating systems have ‘magic touch’, which unfolds the crane from its storage and travelling position with a single button on the remote control unit. Assisted stabilisation means the operator sets the stabilisers from only one lever on the RRC unit, rather than having to manipulate several different controls. And we have a patented auto-levelling system for best siting of the crane on uneven ground.”

Austria’s Palfinger have developed their own in-house remote control system for their knucklebooms. Called the Palcom P7, it is SIL2 certified, with a free-field radio range of 100m as minimum.

Being developed in-house it is of course tailor-made for loader crane operation, not least, says product manager Christian Hora, because they talked to the real experts, the crane drivers, while designing it.

Ergonomic considerations played a large part in its development. It has been designed to maximise comfort of the user over day-long operations.

Joysticks, joystick position and handrests are shaped for a relaxed position of the operator’s hands.

The large 4.1-inch TFT color display uses a ‘transflective’ technology, new to the crane industry when it was introduced, which makes it readable even in full blazing sunlight.

The menu, designed to be easy to use, is controlled by a centrally placed unit called the P-Drive.

“The energy management system is another major innovation” says Hora. “The intelligent charging station checks the state of discharge, the need for refreshment, and the ambient temperature of the batteries before quick charging. From all of this information the charging device inputs the optimum charging current. This in turn extends the long-term service life of the batteries.

“The charging time is far below the operating time of the battery. Reduced power consumption enables the PALcom P7 to run for up to twelve hours in continuous operation without recharging.

Safety features such as rollover and acceleration sensors that prevent unintentional crane movements have been built in.

"For example, if the control handset exceeds a certain inclination angle or the radio console falls to the ground, the radio remote control system automatically cuts out.”

Less technically, but also importantly, Palfinger point to the large areas of padding on the shoulder straps that ensure perfect wearing comfort.

The P7 offers, says Hora, functions that would not be possible with a conventional RC system. Remote control of up to 12 stabiliser function, and the optional control of additional functions of the vehicle that are not part of the crane, are part of this. The P7 is also able to control semi-autonomous movements, such as self-stowing of the boom, where the control unit has to communicate to the operator clearly what the machine is doing.

The Palcom P7 system includes two batteries and an intelligent battery charger. The handset is available in two sizes and in configurations of one-, two- or three-axis joysticks. Retrofit of new functions is easy because no change of the hardware is required as long as the machine is equipped properly.

Fassi are also knuckleboom specialists. Together with Volvo Trucks Italia they have their FXLink, a system that can control not only the crane but the truck as well.

Starting and stopping the truck’s engine and setting its speed, limiting the air suspension, switching on the headlights and activating the horn and parking brake can all be done via the crane's remote control. The interface on the truck’s dashboard warns the driver if the crane’s outriggers have failed to close, or if there is a height-related obstruction.

On your wavelength

One key recent development for remote control manufacturers has been the use of new radio spectrums. Robinson, of Danfoss UK distributor Iregasa, says, “Radio remote controls for cranes usually work on 433MHz and 869MHz in the UK. 2.4Ghz is coming in now, which is getting towards Bluetooth frequencies.” Bluetooth technology, used for short-distance data exchange between fixed and mobile devices, typically has a range of 10m to around 100m. “Range depends on the power output of the transmitter, which is regulated by law: the regulations may restrict power output to, say, 10mW, and that would give a range of around 150m at the top end. There are reasons for the regulations: these are open industrial frequency bands.

Everyone uses 433 and 869MHz, and you don’t want your instructions to your crane to be interfering with every other piece of equipment for miles around.

And, of course, any remote operator should be reasonably close to his crane so that he can see what it is doing.”

The adoption of 2.4GHz allows for improved features on the remote, says Scanreco’s Westerling. “In the past, Scanreco’s Maxi and Mini transmitters, with corresponding G2 and G3 receivers, have been offered with 433MHz for Europe, 915MHz for North America and with other national frequency bands for different markets worldwide.

"This spring (2020) we are introducing 2.4GHz products, eliminating the need to use different frequencies for different regions. The technology brings other benefits also: Thanks to the higher bandwidth on the 2.4GHz frequency band more data can be transferred in a shorter time. This reduces the power consumption of the transmitters, thus increasing the operating time by approximately 50% before having to recharge the batteries.

"The increased bandwidth also enhances the performance for our 4.3in colour display, allowing faster response times and even more advanced graphics.”

At your fingertips

The controls manufacturers offer a range of useful features, targeting crane users across segments. Key considerations for end users and crane builders include ease of pairing of transmitter and receiver, richness of data offered to the operators, and ease of use.

“Danfoss remotes send an ID with each command that identifies the crane it is intended for, so that only one crane will respond to it. So you can have two cranes, each remotely controlled, working in tandem supporting each other,” says UK distributor Iregasa’s Robinson.

“The technology is evolving,” he says. “Each manufacturer develops new solutions, so everyone has to keep up. Nobody wants to get left behind. And it is constantly moving. I have seen three major updates to the technology in the 15 years that I have been with Iregasa.

Now it is not just the operator telling the crane what to do: data can be sent from the crane back to the operator. You get feedback of text and of data. I like to think that we are still at the cutting edge and market leaders. Danfoss is bringing out two products later this year, called IKompact and IKargo.

IKompact is specially designed for utility and service cranes. Both will work on 2.4Ghz, with push button transmitters and are RFID smart” (RFID is a data transfer protocol).

“They will be retrofittable to our existing receivers; you will just replace the handset and the software SIM and they will talk to the existing receivers on the crane.”

Scanreco’s controls have become almost an industry standard within the knuckle boom cranes segment, says Westerling. Recent updates from Scanreco include the ability to use the 14 push-button handheld Rocket Flex transmitter with the G3 CANopen receiver. This gives the operators the freedom to mix between a bellybox transmitter, like the Mini or Maxi, and a smaller hand-held transmitter like the Rocket Flex when controlling their crane or machine. The Mini transmitter has a new line of ergonomic joysticks which come in three different versions: a basic two axis joystick, a two-axis joystick with pushbutton on top of the handle and a three axis joystick. “Many knuckleboom crane operators still prefer the classic individual linear lever type actuators for their remotes” says Westerling. “But with the new type of three-axis joysticks an operator can easily control six crane movements simultaneously without having to change the grip of their hands. It takes time to change habits and an entire industry, but I think these joysticks will become increasingly popular over time.”

REMdevice specialise in the design and production of industrial radio controls. Functionality and safety in real-life field operations demand protection from external agents such as dust, water and dirt; the integrity of all electronic components demands this. “To that end, we use techno-polymers such as nylon loaded with glass fibres and special rubbers for the casings,” says Toniolo, but they go further. REMdevice design their devices to have a total absence of external battery contacts and connections. This, he says, is what most distinguishes REMdevice products from the field.

“Contacts are points of weakness and criticality in any apparatus that has to function in rough field conditions. But battery charging still needs to be carried out. REMdevice equipment uses our patented induction battery recharge system, which we believe is unique. It allows a completely sealed casing, proof against intrusion of foreign matter, and gives extraordinary durability, safety and robustness to our systems. Very low power consumption gives up to 40 hours of work on a single charge.

“Our design philosophy is that required maintenance of the device should be minimal if not zero; and that the classic large quantities of spare parts and batteries that are kept as stock in the supply chain are for REMdevices not required” says Toniolo. “That gives us a great advantage over other systems that are on the market. We are so confident in the quality and reliability of our products that we give a 36-month total warranty even on the battery pack.”

Abitron have introduced their new T-series transmitters, for all types of cranes from towers to truck mounted cranes and all-terrains.

Three transmitters offer various possibilities; they come individually equipped for the client’s needs.

“They provide an enormous amount of space for switches, pushbuttons, joysticks and more and allow highly intuitive handling,” says export manager Sonje Zurth. The new push-button TGD-8 has an integrated battery with up to 140 hours lifetime; the colour graphic displays are freely programmable, with real time video feedback as an option. Touch sensors are integrated into the handle as a safety feature.

“Implementation can be over traditional digital relays or by proportional outputs,” says Zurth.

“Nowadays it is more and more realised over bus interfaces. We offer CAN Bus, CANopen safety, Profinet, Ethercat and many more.” Abitron deal both directly with manufacturers, and with owners wanting to retro-fit remote control to existing cranes.

The latest transmitter generation from HBC-Radiomatic has newly-developed 5-inch vivid-colour displays. “They allow clear and well structured arrangement of more, and more valuable, information” says head of marketing Oliver Meister.

The high-resolution screens give configurable presentation of data such as engine speed, oil pressure and load weight, as well as error messages and warnings.

Softkeys, used with the company’s ICON navigation control, make, he says, for easy and intuitive operation; the display can be configured and optimised to fit the needs of the operator.

The displays can also be used with a camera to deliver live video images.

“The camera can be positioned to give a clear view of the machine and the working area” says Meister. “A new addition is a switchable two camera option, which can be helpful in areas with limited views or blind spots. There is a mobile solution for portable cameras.”

HBC’s Spectrum transmitter series has been completely renovated with updated radio technology and automated shut-off for implausible control commands. New batteries give notably increased operating times.

“Our latest Spectrum4 transmitter is designed for the control of the largest machinery,” he says.

“In general, wireless control of crane systems has been standard in virtually all industry sectors for many years now” says Meister. “For decades we have been cooperating with virtually all well-known manufacturers, and we continually develop our systems to offer a future-proof product with state-of-the- art technology. For example, our CPS (Continuous Power Supply) is a smart function that allows for changing the battery without deactivating the radio control. That makes it ideal for long machine use where no interruption is desired.”

“We have fully automatic frequency management processes, such as adaptive frequency hopping. New Merlin technology is an innovation which lets customers combine and enlarge radio systems according to their wishes. If a service event occurs, it is possible to activate a spare transmitter quickly and easily without the original transmitter.

"And the system comes with our proven catch-release feature, which increases machine utilisation significantly and enhances work safety.”

IMET design and manufacture industrial safety radio remote controls for every kind of tower crane and truck crane. Their M880 series comes in many variants. The THOR2 M version has up to nine single axis joysticks on the control box panel and double batteries for round-the-clock work shifts. It is suitable for hydraulic cranes with six to ten functions, or any large truck crane. The THOR2 B model, for full accessory equipped cranes, has room for 3 or 4 dual-axis joysticks and extra commands such as buttons, toggle-switches, rotary switches and potentiometers. The ZEUS 2b has a more compact panel and is available with stepless or with up to five-speed joysticks for controlling tower cranes. IMET’s optical joysticks have a wide inclination angle of +/- 40° that gives, says IMET, precise handling like no other.

The series has automatic frequency change, able to autonomously position itself on the best radio transmission channel; manual channel changes are no longer required. IMET remote controls log every event causing a failure or an abnormal stop, as well as the number of hours of duty done by the remote. The diagnosis tool interfaces with a PC to show all the operating parameters and a list of significant events that have taken place.

Scanreco’s bellyboxes display their large colour display
Danfoss’s iKompact handset.
Hiab’s XS drive transmitter.
Hyva’s control system unloads the job.
Palfinger develop their own controllers.
Controlling a Volvo truck using Fassi's FX Link controls.
A selection of REMdevice transmitters
Abitron’s T7 transmitter.
No shortage of switches from HBC Radiomatic – and they even provide a torch.
IMET’s Zeus controller is adaptable for hydraulic uses.