Volvo CE unveils ZEUX: How a LEGO model designed with kids became a prototype for a real autonomous wheel loader

ZEUX autonomous wheel loader concept

The ZEUX autonomous wheel loader concept employs a scout drone and an adjustable, boom-mounted camera called The Eye, to keep track of its surroundings and indicate focus to nearby humans.

Of all the major heavy equipment manufacturers, none has been more outwardly committed to bringing futuristic, autonomous and electrified machines to real-world quarries and jobsites than Volvo. For the last few years, Volvo has been publicly sharing updates on the progress of autonomous machine prototypes like its HX2 carrier (a cab-less, self-driving dump truck) and LX1 wheel loader, and electrified prototypes like the EX1 cable-connected excavator.

And though Volvo has plans to get the latest versions of those machines working at a real Skanska quarry this fall, the company isn’t letting up on its push for innovation. The manufacturer even found an opportunity to use its partnership with LEGO to inform the design of its future machines.

This week, Volvo and Lego, which have partnered on highly detailed Lego Technic models for the L350F wheel loader and the EW160E wheeled excavator, unveiled what they call ZEUX. This latest Lego Technic set will hit store shelves in August, the companies say, but the bigger news here is that Volvo says the model also serves as a digital prototype for a real-world autonomous machine.

Team building becomes prototype building

Volvo says ZEUX started out as a “fun, informal team building event,” meant to provide a bit of inspiration not only for Lego’s design team, but for Volvo CE‘s as well. The exercise gave the two design teams an idea. With the next LEGO Technic sets, the two would work together to “design the construction machines of the future.” They even decided to bring a focus group of kids in to weigh in on what makes a feature futuristic and cool

volvo lego technic zeuxBut as Volvo’s head of Brand Communications and Partnerships, Arvid Rinaldo, explains, the collaboration has evolved well beyond a LEGO set. In fact, Volvo says the work on ZEUX has “led to a number of potentially revolutionary patents.”

“We have enjoyed a truly fun and productive collaboration with the LEGO® Technic team over the past few years. It allowed us to test ideas for new types of construction machines for the future, both in terms of functionality, scale, design and interaction. This model may seem futuristic now, but autonomous, connected and electric construction machines are already starting to be a reality. The Volvo Concept Wheel Loader ZEUX is a realistic next step in the exciting evolution of our construction machines.”

Kids create “The Eye”

Volvo says there are two main features of the ZEUX that the kids came up with. The first is a scout drone that provides Zeux with real-time images of the site and changes to the environment as a project progresses. The second is called The Eye. And Volvo is actually pretty excited about its potential for becoming a real feature of future heavy equipment.

Jutting upward and out toward the ZEUX’s bucket like a scorpion’s tail, The Eye is a boom-mounted adjustable camera that “will show excactly where the vehicle’s ‘attention’ is directed.” Volvo says The Eye could be a very useful safety feature for an autonomous machine because it can indicate exactly what the machine is focused on, and even serve as a way for it to make “‘eye contact’ with humans and acknowledge their presence.”

“When you cross a busy road, you watch out for dangers and try to make eye contact with drivers in your immediate vicinity. It’s an instinctive reaction that lets you evaluate your next move”, says Andrew Woodman, senior design manager for LEGO. “Should you stay where you are, or is it safe to move? It’s usually an easy assessment. With autonomous vehicles, you don’t have that interaction because you can’t see all the sensors that allow them to navigate around both stationary and moving objects. It’s not intuitive for us to decode what the vehicle’s next move is, where it’s going, or if it has seen us. While the Volvo Concept Wheel Loader ZEUX will not be driving on roads, it would be interacting with workers at a construction site. So we set out to create features and functions that make the interaction between humans and machines as safe and intuitive as possible.”

In addition to the drone and Eye, the ZEUX is also outfitted with an extendable counterweight, a chassis that raises and lowers, articulated four-wheel steering and several other experimental features that you’d only find on a futuristic loader.

The LEGO Technic Volvo ZEUX set has 1,167 pieces and can even be reassembled into another Volvo machine: the PEGAX Concept Hauler.