Andy Bird and Tareq Khodabaabacksh discuss how rugged solutions are bringing 24×7 data capture and remote condition monitoring to challenging railway environments

Accurate sensing and regular monitoring are a necessity for maintaining safety in the rail sector and the UK leads the way in Remote Condition Monitoring adoption, with Europe and Oceania following closely behind as advanced adopters. But these highly precise and sensitive devices must be able to withstand some of the world’s most challenging environments. Sensors need to be housed in industrial-grade robust enclosures to ensure reliability and continuous operation in extreme conditions.
There are some key industries – the rail sector for one – that rely on critical equipment and infrastructure to operate around the clock. Sustained uptime is key to ensuring service efficiency and success. In the UK, the rail sector is rapidly adopting new technologies and processes to achieve this supplementation of traditional methods of manual survey with automated monitoring. This is bringing additional benefits of enhanced worker safety and cost efficiencies, together with the bonus of 24×7 remote data capture and powerful analytics to dramatically increase service levels.

There are many ongoing UK high-profile rail projects actively using wireless monitoring solutions, including HS2 and Crossrail – and this advanced monitoring is also starting to gather steam in the structural and geotechnical sectors, putting us on the path towards a truly ‘smart’ future.

Round-the-clock monitoring is no longer a luxury
Take a rail network consisting of thousands of mission-critical assets, all spread across an extensive area. This is an industry where even a minor fault can lead to extensive delays and maintenance costs. The ability to remotely monitor and co-ordinate responses to issues as they develop is invaluable for maintaining uptime. In particular, the ability to monitor assets for potential failure contributes hugely to the smooth and effective operation of the network, which in turn builds brand reputation among partners and customers.

The keenest adopters of remote condition monitoring are those organisations responsible for maintaining the rail network – Network Rail, London Underground and TfL – who need to monitor mainline, underground, DLR, tram lines, and associated infrastructure. Specific monitoring applications involve capturing data related to trackbed cant and twist, settlement, tunnel convergence and divergence, OLE and gantry stability, embankment and cutting stability, retaining walls and much more.

Data is the lifeblood of rail operations – the smallest level of detail counts
Rail operational success and safety can be impacted by the smallest of unidentified structural displacement, so it is important to monitor even the smallest of factors that could threaten disruption. These span changes in structural and asset health, conditions such as tilt, temperature, moisture, strain and ground settlement, among others. It is important to ensure the sensors that capture data on these conditions can continuously connect back to a dedicated gateway for reporting and analysis, allowing a 24×7 response to any unexpected changes.

Planning, maintenance scheduling and operational efficiency is greatly enhanced by enabling technicians to remotely configure sensors and monitor infrastructure and asset conditions from any location – at any time. The addition of wireless sensor connectivity also offers significant benefits above and beyond wired solutions by enabling faster, simpler deployment and configuration – but the environments can be tough.

Tackling hostile operating conditions
Day-to-day operations in the rail sector involve assets in use around the clock in highly challenging, constantly evolving conditions. For example, a sensor deployed to capture and relay data on the cant and twist of a rail track will have to contend with exposure to outdoor conditions such as rain, snow, dust and heat, and even strong vibrations caused by passing trains.

Off-the-shelf technology developed for less testing conditions – for example an air-conditioned office or sheltered indoor conditions – brings with it a significant threat of failure in a potentially remote location, at any time of day. Remote condition monitoring solutions therefore need to be IP67-rated as standard, as this guarantees consistent protection against moisture and other threats to electronics.

If these threats can be safeguarded against, wireless monitoring will drive the natural transition from traditional wired and manual methods to continuous, precise and remote measurements. These advanced capabilities offer the same – and in many cases greater – level of reliability while significantly reducing device installation time and eliminating the need for ‘boots on the ground’.

Hardware tailored to its environment
Of course, no two monitoring projects are the same. Each will require differing sensor types, connectivity and power sources depending on their deployment location and intended role. Hardware protection is no different – there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, which is why a tailored modular enclosure will ensure the highest possible level of resilience.

The most effective enclosure solutions offer a high level of modularity, ranging from multiple sizes to an extensive range of add-on components – including customisable mounting brackets, antennas and M25 connectivity ports. If data relays require solar panels as a back-up power source or an alternative antenna to introduce 3G connectivity, these should be integrated into the existing enclosure without comprising on protection. And for projects where line of sight threatens to disrupt data transfer, repeaters can be used to re-route data around physical obstacles.

Case in point: Barnehurst for Network Rail
Robust wireless condition monitoring solutions are today in operation worldwide, supporting some of the world’s most complex and prestigious construction and transport projects. Network Rail maintains significant monitoring operations in the UK, such as at Barnehurst in Kent, where Intelligent Monitoring Solutions (IMS) were deployed to monitor risks along a 700m section of track which was at risk of landslips and other environmental changes.

Tilt sensors deployed at regular intervals along the track and embankment monitored the most minute of condition changes – with these supported by solar-powered triggered 3G cameras to provide engineers with 24×7 high-resolution imagery for remote monitoring. This information allowed Network Rail to stop the trains before Barnehurst where there was a major landslip that caused a tree to fall on the track, averting a potential derailment.

This kind of predictive maintenance can also allow for remedial action to be carried out in advance of catastrophic failure which would impact the smooth operation of rail services.

The industry applications are broadening
Rail operators in the UK are pursuing digital transformation initiatives at pace, unlocking advanced applications such as predictive maintenance, early warning systems and large-scale monitoring. These are all made possible by the latest wireless solutions for dynamic sensor monitoring through a single visualisation platform, which are being deployed in other sector in advanced use cases such as IoT and Smart Cities.

This remote, automated wireless monitoring has largely been made possible by cloud technology, allowing rail engineers to store large volumes of data at low costs, which is highly accessible and readily available for analysis and distribution.

Beyond cloud technology, emerging technologies such as machine learning and AI are leading us towards a future where rail data can be automatically and remotely converted into actionable intelligence, helping engineers make more meaningful and accurate predictions.

Where next? Machine learning and AI offer a glimpse into the future
Wireless remote condition monitoring is becoming increasingly important in order to maintain the highest levels of safety and operational efficiency, whether this is on rail network infrastructure, underground construction projects or even on trains themselves.

As sensing solutions further develop and become even more resilient, precise and connected, we are likely to see the railway sector’s applications broaden beyond remote monitoring of infrastructure and other assets into machine learning and AI-driven operations. But for now, expect this sort of rugged monitoring technology to become the ‘must have’ deployment to support complex rail and transport projects worldwide.

Andy Bird is Managing Director at GTT Wireless and Tareq Khodabacksh is Marketing Manager at Senceive.

GTT Wireless provides a full range of variable size rugged enclosures, enterprise-grade antenna and innovative components for bespoke design and integration into next-generation wireless projects.

Senceive Ltd. provides an innovative approach to reliable, long-life, precise wireless monitoring solutions for buildings, earthworks, rail, bridges, walls, tunnels, structures, dams and mines. Senceive enables intelligent low-power sensor nodes, including those from different manufacturers, to wirelessly communicate through radio networks.