SVG Sprites

How IoT enables trains to drive

19 August 2018

People are already calling it the new railroad track: the point on which our rail infrastructure is connected. With the arrival of NarrowBand IoT, this may be accelerated. The network has barely gone live and the future is already taking shape. The Dutch company Dual Inventive – a pioneer in IoT applications for the railway – is working with T-Mobile’s IoT team on sensors to monitor the temperature of railway tracks. How will this benefit us? Well, for example, that trains will always be on time.

A brief lesson on steel

Sturdy and unyielding as the thick steel rails in our railway tracks may seem, in reality they are more unruly. They will expand at high temperatures and shrink under the influence of cold. An average piece of rail can deal with these variations just fine. However, this is a different story at so-called critical locations. Think, for example, of a railway bridge that refuses to open due to an expanded rail jamming the mechanism. Just a degree over the threshold or that additional millimeter and all train traffic comes to a sudden standstill.

Hello World

“Temperature is a much underappreciated parameter,” says Lex van der Poel, founder and CEO of Dual Inventive. Since 2008, the Dutch company has been conquering international rail infrastructure with smart IoT innovations. The cooperation with T-Mobile has been there from the very beginning, but with the arrival of NarrowBand IoT the relationship has intensified considerably.

Van der Poel laughs: “I think we were one of the first with a Hello World on T-Mobile’s NarrowBand network. We work closely together. The beauty of T-Mobile is that they do not think in terms of them being big, and others being small – the IoT team is open to everyone who wants to collaborate. The value chain around IoT is based on equality. We need each other. That is the kind of atmosphere you can find at T-Mobile, whether you are a big or a smaller player.”

Competition with baby monitors

For sensor pioneers such as Van der Poel, a nationwide NB-IoT network is invaluable. Previously, Dual Inventive had to roll out their own network to communicate with its sensors. The first external network was available for the first time just two years ago: a LoRa network. Dual Inventive experimented with it, but encountered too many limitations. Van der Poel: “LoRa is an open spectrum. You are competing with baby monitors and 1001 other applications. Data collision is a genuine risk. LoRa is suitable for some applications, but not when safety is your number one priority, as is the case with us.”

Already live this year

From 2016 onward, Dual Inventive sat at the table with T-Mobile to think about the new NarrowBand IoT network. In theory, the network would be the ideal solution for anyone who wants to let devices communicate. The NarrowBand IoT range is phenomenal and uses very little energy. Van der Poel: “In a railway track, you do not want to replace a battery every six months.” The test phase of the past two years did not shatter that dream, far from it. The results are so good that the first temperature sensors will go live this year.

Dream big, start small

That is already fast, but on good days Van der Poel and T-Mobile dream another three stations ahead. A sensor that measures vibrations, a sensor that warns when the angle of a rail changes – there is so much relevant data still to be measured.

Van der Poel: “In the future, there will be no company not working with IoT. There is so much value in monitoring relevant data.” His most important advice: start small. “Firstly ensure you properly and logically organize one process. The next step will then automatically occur and that is how it will automatically expand. The trick is to not only monitor a certain piece of information. You are also going to connect it all.”

Hopeful future

The question often arises whether the problems on the railway track can be solved with smart technology. Because if you take technology back into the life of the average citizen, very basic requirements will arise. Can I assume that my train is on time? Is there sufficient capacity on the track? Or, at the very least: is there reliable, transparent information about changes or disturbances?

“This is of course what it is all about,” says Van der Poel firmly. “If you look at the challenges of the railway with a down-to-earth and competent perspective, you can prevent and solve many problems with smart technology. You will of course have some political challenges, for example about budgeting and regulations, but what we are currently doing with IoT has the potential to have a very significant impact on the quality of our train traffic.”