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Safety on the line

By [email protected] - 1st July 2019 - 15:28

Technology has become integral across rail and construction over the last 20 years. Since the turn of the millennium, the industry has come a very long way and the influence of digital technologies has spanned a wide range of areas. Whether companies are looking to improve their bottom lines, streamline processes or make day-to-day life easier, technology has played a pivotal, facilitating role.

Theoretically, the underlying goal of this digital revolution is to improve our lives. For many, that correlates to profits or convenience, but in the rail, construction and mining industries, technological innovations not only make things quicker and easier, but also greatly enhance safety in an environment where this is often the most critical factor.

Intelligent Monitoring Solutions

Among those spearheading this ‘safety first’ emphasis by being able to identify early signs of structural and geotechnical failure and fatigue are wireless Intelligent Monitoring Solutions (IMS). These bring together the key technologies of wireless, smart sensors and the gateway to the outside world to offer enhanced prediction and enable instant/rapid decision-making.

Sensors have traditionally been functionally simple devices that convert physical variables into electrical signals or changes in electrical properties. While this is an essential starting point, smart sensors/intelligent sensing needs to add the following properties to perform as Internet of Things (IoT) components:

  • Cost effective, to be economically deployed in large numbers
  • Physically small and unobtrusive in any environment where possible
  • Wireless, for versatility
  • Sensor nodes need to be able to talk continuously to each other
  • Self-identification and self-validation
  • Very low power draw, plus smart algorithms, so can survive for years without a battery change
  • Robust, to minimise or eliminate maintenance
  • Self-diagnostic and self-healing
  • Self-calibrating, or accepts commands without lag
  • Able to provide immediate alerts
  • Data pre-processing, to reduce the load on gateways, PLCs, and cloud resources

Information from multiple sensors can be combined and correlated to draw conclusions about latent problems; for example, Tilt sensors, In-Place Inclinometers or Piezometers combined with still camera images can be used to detect and validate the onset - or actuality - of landslip failure. Smart sensors are built as IoT components that convert the real-world variable that they’re measuring into a digital data stream for transmission to a solar powered gateway.

Incorporating IIoT into smaller, easier to deploy, long-life wireless devices can help to monitor assets in rail and construction by utilising a wide range of structural and geotechnical sensors, as well as wireless cameras. Once deployed, engineers receive smart localised ‘Big Data’ in near real-time, aiding the prediction of asset failure, and importantly, allowing immediate reaction to potential danger.

Minimising risk

Wireless IMS allows surveyors to be proactive, as well as reactive. These systems provide early prediction and minimise risks in dangerous areas while saving time and money - allowing preventative work to be done in order to limit asset failure. If there is any movement on a track, an embankment, or even in a tunnel, these devices will detect it - and will signal them in near-real time to reduce potentially vital delays in closing lines or conducting repair works.

Looking to the future, AI or machine learning could soon take large volumes of this kind of data and certain asset failure classes; analyse and potentially aid the prediction, or show earlier trends in failures and potentially remove or minimise the need for any human intervention for critical asset decision-making.

While predictability remains a little way off for some asset classes, and needs all the necessary safety protocols in place, the more enlightened organisations with their data scientists have been working on this for years and it will almost certainly be part of day to day operations in the not too distant future.

Flexible IMS Monitoring

There are many critical success factors that make for instant and effective intelligent sensing. For rapid decision-making to function, it does require particular high-performing wireless platform infrastructures to be in place and will not work with star, LoRa or point-to-point wireless systems.

Barnehurst is a prime example of how IMS can be extremely useful in detecting slippages and risks on earthworks. However, the value of IMS extends beyond geo-technical applications and can be used to detect movement on almost any asset in rail, construction and mining. Overhead line equipment and track bed, as well as bridges and tunnels and buildings, quarries, pits and mines, are other examples of where the technology is proving itself for enhanced safety. Small and robust wireless sensor nodes are now being deployed almost everywhere. They can be connected with multiple sensors and sensor types in remote locations without anyone needing to be worried about the asset - until something happens.

Thankfully, the technology exists that allows us to immediately know what’s happening on ‘at risk’ assets, in remote or busy locations and to accurately measure movement down to a hundredth of a millimetre, with a reporting rate of only a few seconds. With the best platforms, it can afford unprecedented reliability, long battery life, precision and repeatability for a multitude of purposes and environments. This is not the future... it is today.

Graham Smith is CEO of Senceive (, the London-based provider of reliable and robust wireless remote condition monitoring solutions for the civil engineering sector

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