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Innovation and light bulbs

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Edison succeeded in making his light bulb work, eventually. It is often quoted that, on his path to success, he discovered 10,000 ways not to make a light bulb. Perseverance, then, won the day.

But, in the modern commercial world, constraints upon research budgets and resources do not allow for a trial and error approach to developing new concepts. Solutions need to be new and innovative, whilst also thoroughly proven before being implemented. They need to be delivered on time and on budget.

Under similar constraints, would Edison ever have reached his working light bulb moment?

Innovate or mitigate?

The constant drive to increase safety, improve efficiencies and provide better services creates opposing challenges for engineers. On the one hand, there is pressure to innovate, to embrace new technology and methods to meet today’s demands. On the other hand, when a new technology comes along and it is unproven in the rail environment, the burden of time and cost to test and qualify the product as fit for purpose, or otherwise, may result in true progress being aborted. Innovation can be stifled by the need to mitigate project risks.

Then there are the project risks associated with using older, yet proven, technology. Taking the assumed ‘safe route’ will often result in a sub-optimal solution, but is that what is really wanted for systems that are critical to operations, security or safety?

Avoiding the innovative solution in favour of an older, established one could also present risks for obsolescence management. While considering something new, assurances will be needed that it will be fit for purpose, without having to invest excessive amounts of valuable resource into detailed evaluations.

Consider the case of two technology examples:

Communications – Wireless methods have become essential for a range of modern applications and also open up new possibilities. But an average system, that works perfectly well in an open environment, may struggle to perform when introduced to the physical and operational challenges of the railway environment.

CCTV – There are many products available that are perfectly acceptable for general surveillance applications, including town centre and retail environments. However, operational and safety critical applications add an entirely different set of demands which cannot be met by many off-the-peg CCTV products.

Learning from elsewhere

A look at other industries with comparable requirements can de-risk innovation by identifying proven technology that transcends its origins and then applying that to the rail environment.

It’s widely accepted that the railway environment poses unique challenges for communications and CCTV technology. How many other industries can you name where systems operate indoors, outdoors, underground and overground, across both urban and rural areas?

Add to this the demand for systems to operate amongst high-voltage power lines and numerous metal structures. Equipment may also be subjected to vibration, shock, or suffer poor ventilation due to installation in confined spaces. In vehicle-based communication systems, one end of a wireless link may be travelling at high speed relative to the other. It’s fair to say that the list of comparable industries is not long.

It is possible that many of the challenges faced by rail engineers are also realised by engineers from other industries. If knowledge can be shared, and lessons learned from others outside of the rail environment, then new solutions may be found. But who else shares similar technical challenges? What problems have they encountered, what are their solutions and how can they be accessed?

Hiding in plain sight

In considering the core applications for these two technology examples, several solutions are hiding in plain sight.

Television broadcast offers many examples of high-quality video combined with wireless communications. Followers of the FIA Formula E Championship for all-electric racing cars will already have some insight into several technologies that will change transport in the future.

So what exactly does the world of sports broadcasting have to offer rail industry communications and CCTV?

Formula E has rapidly gained support from automotive manufacturers including Jaguar, Audi, Renault and Citroen, with Mercedes-Benz set to join the series in 2019. It symbolises a global motorsport shift toward efficient and sustainable energy solutions, developing cutting edge technology with real-world relevance.

In addition to wireless broadcast cameras in operation around the circuit, the cars are equipped with on-board camera systems transmitting low-latency, crystal-clear images from any of four micro-sized high-definition cameras along with audio and data related to the car’s speed, position and other telemetry. Up to 20 cars can be ‘live’ at any one time.

Race speeds of 140mph, near constant acceleration and deceleration, fierce vibration, shock and high temperatures are just a few of the physical conditions these systems must endure. Electric power delivery of 200kW in close proximity to the camera and transmitter systems also has to be taken into account.

Are these challenging conditions starting to sound familiar?

External factors show more challenges. Formula E races are mostly held on street circuits, adding the complexity of urban environments and myriad physical structures to the wireless transmission challenge. All of this must be accomplished using standard-based technology that is interoperable with a huge range of other equipment and also complies with stringent international regulations.

Beyond the obvious differences in application, it may be surprising to see the number of parallels to the rail industry. Of course, a sceptic may say: “If motor racing fans can’t see a driver’s camera view, then the race still carries on, but railway operation is totally dependent upon real-time video systems.”

That’s true enough. However, from the broadcaster’s perspective, there are no second chances to deliver on-board camera footage in a live scenario. Technical failures, picture degradation or dropouts are considered totally unacceptable. When over 190 million people in over 100 countries around the world are watching and judging the quality of the service being delivered, the commercial pressure is immense. The best picture quality has to be delivered, faultlessly, every time.

So whilst the world of motor sports broadcasting is ever keen to push boundaries and adopt the latest technology, is there sufficient proof that this wireless video technology is evolved enough to be used on railways?

Absolutely. Formula E has been operating these systems since the beginning of the series three years ago and variations are also in use by MotoGP, World Rally Championship and World Rallycross, plus many other sports and events globally. MotoGP even uses gyroscopically stabilised cameras to remove the ‘tilt’ as riders take corners.

In addition, law enforcement and public safety organisations around the world operate long-range airborne data links (ADL) using the same core technology for real-time surveillance. The technology is mature and proven enough to be depended upon under harsh conditions in mission critical applications, and brings the potential to revolutionise video communications in rail applications, including CCTV between trackside assets and moving trains.

Collaborative solutions

Identifying valuable technology developments from other industries is one step toward improving innovation in rail.

uilding upon what has already been proven mitigates the risks usually associated with being an early-adopter.

Collaboration, though, is ultimately the key to successful delivery, ensuring that engineers from each discipline are able to share core knowledge and work as a single team. With this in mind, Vislink, the leading provider of wireless video systems to broadcast, law enforcement and public safety markets, and Panasonic System Solutions Europe, a world leader in intelligent and connected technology solutions, have joined forces in a formal collaboration. This will bring their technical and commercial teams closer together, drawing upon experience from a wider pool of industry applications and enabling them to work on shared projects toward common goals.

Carl Pocknell, general manager at Panasonic System Solutions Europe, explained the approach: “Panasonic System Solutions Europe is focused on solving our customer problems in three key areas – critical infrastructure, connected communications and automation. This often involves identifying technology being used in other industries and analysing how it can be applied to our sectors of expertise. In this case, we have combined Panasonic’s innovative CCTV cameras and solution design alongside Vislink’s wireless technology, allowing users to monitor cameras without the delays (latency) that so often affect images in this type of environment.”

As an industry striving to continually innovate, collaborative solutions have the power to accelerate innovation or open a doorway to new capabilities. By taking a wider view, and drawing upon developments and experience from other markets, that next ‘light bulb’ moment is brought just a bit closer.

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