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The sense in rail – sensing needs for a 21st century railway

Too much data and not enough information is a view often expressed within the rail sector although rail is probably not alone.  So what’s the solution?  In speaking at the ESP KTN’s recent Intelligent Sensing event, the Transport KTN’s rail specialist took the opportunity to outline some preliminary thoughts on sensing needs for the rail sector:

  1. There’s no point in having data unless it can help us make decisions easily.  That requires: communication of the data from point of measurement to point of use; analysis of the data to generate useful information; human interaction where decisions can’t be reliably automated.
  2. For this to happen the whole data ‘value chain’ has to be integrated into business processes.  Human nature is to feel uncomfortable about change especially in the work place; so the smaller the change to business processes the better from that perspective.  So to make that quantum shift in performance with what may be radical changes in business processes requires a very clear demonstration of value up front – which of course can lead to a ‘Catch 22’ situation.
  3. We need to be clever about what we measure in the first place.  For example, if we’re wanting to monitor the power operated doors on rail vehicles to minimise the chance of failure, what measurement(s) give us the biggest bang for our buck?  We could measure door closing force, displacement with time, or just the time to close.  Some systems have been proven to work well by measuring just a single important parameter.
  4. Sensors (and associated communications pathways) of course need to be easy to install, so minimal wiring is advantageous and nowhere is this more important than when looking at retrospective installation on existing vehicles.  Minimal maintenance is also important, but above all they need to deliver robust data streams preferably using standard communication protocols.
  5. When seeking to monitor infrastructure and freight wagons, where electrical power is often hard to come by, sensors that are self-powered through on-board power and/or energy harvesting are going to be attractive.
  6. And finally of course, there's the question of cost – this all has to be done at a cost that is commensurate with the value returned.

The above principles are all well and good but what is it that the rail sector actually wants to ‘sense’; what data needs to be collected where and to what end?  Pointers to this can be found in the following:

These are only preliminary thoughts so views welcome!

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