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Machine communication – putting the puzzle together

The end-to-end process of digitalised track maintenance is like a jigsaw puzzle with many pieces that have to fit together perfectly. We will be demonstrating several such technological components and how they work together at iaf 2022 in Münster.

In principle, railway infrastructure operators want assets that function reliably. They don’t want expensive maintenance, and they do want fully operational assets at low cost. That is why there’s a great deal of interest in technologies that reduce maintenance expenses and track possessions. Many new developments enable direct communication between machines, among other things. They have eliminated many of the obstacles standing in the way of fully digitalised, automated track maintenance.

The first fully automated machine-to-machine communication

What typically happens is that a track inspection vehicle, such as an EM120VT, provides an exact measurement of the track geometry and sends the measuring data to a track maintenance machine via the cloud. Thanks to its integrated measuring systems, the Unimat 09-4x4/4S E³ can also take care of the measurement itself. This means the operator no longer has to feed surveying data into the tamping machine.

The tamping machine’s automatic guiding computer takes the measuring data from the cloud and guides the tamping of the track section or the turnout. The subsequent tamping report is then generated fully automatically and in conformity with the applicable standards. In addition, the results of pre- and post-measuring can be entered directly into the infrastructure manager’s database.

Something that simplifies things a great deal for the operator requires the smooth interplay of many different parts working together in the background. What technological developments were specifically needed for that?

A piece of the puzzle: high-performance sensor system with modular integration

Accurate measuring data is the basis for a perfect result. Dual track geometry measuring systems measure track geometry both under load and unloaded. This makes it possible to detect cavities under the sleepers, among other things. Combined with the external track geometry, supplied by the ReferencedTrackGeometry measuring system (RTG), you have a solid database for corrective measures. These measuring systems are modular, much like GPR or rail profile measuring devices. As a result, they can be installed on many different types of machines. Furthermore, the high-performance sensor system makes it possible to measure at high speeds without track possessions.

A piece of the puzzle: accurate positioning

The QR markers on the contact line masts are a seemingly small yet extremely important detail. These reference points are for precise localisation. The machine detects the QR code while travelling along the track, assigning the measuring data to the correct location with the highest precision. This prevents deviations which, even if they are a few metres, could lead to highly undesirable results.

A piece of the puzzle: uniform software platform and data formats

The basic operating software, Track Machines Operating System (tmOS), ensures that all devices communicate in the same “language”. That includes everything from the measuring system to the tamping machine and the server in the data centre. Standardised data formats guarantee ease of communication. This means a tamping machine can directly access the track geometry data stored in a database and then upload the documented post-measuring results. It is also possible to depict and edit the data in 3D in virtual space.

Time-consuming manual work is no longer necessary, making the process less error-prone and less stressful for operators.

A piece of the puzzle: data transmission "over the air"

The MachineDataConnector (MDC) serves as the link in the chain of communication. The MDC collects the data generated by the machine, uploading it to the operating company’s central database via a mobile data connection. All other machines and users can access it from there.

A piece of the puzzle: smart tamping units

The Unimat 09-4x4/4S E³ on display at iaf has an additional feature: while tamping, it can detect whether and when the cavity under the sleeper was completely filled. If necessary, it can repeat the squeezing movement of the tamping tines. This guarantees an optimal sleeper bed and thus a long-lasting track geometry. It also reduces wear on the tamping unit.

Digitalisation boosts efficiency

These individual pieces are coming together for the first time to form a complete picture: the automated end-to-end process. Time-consuming manual work is no longer necessary, making the process less error-prone and less stressful for operators. The live demonstration at iaf is an impressive display of how digitalisation and networking are key to optimising efficiency in track maintenance.