If anything meets the criteria of dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks for automation to assist or replace humans, train and railway maintenance qualifies. The U.K. is leading the way for robot train maintenance with university-led initiatives.
The global market for inspection robots will have a compound annual grow rate of 16.68% between 2017 and 2021, predicts Absolute Reports.
Earlier this year, the UK Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) announced the winners of a £250,000 ($336,000 U.S.) competition that called for feasibility studies focusing on robotics and autonomous systems (RAS).
The award, provided by the Rail Research UK Association (RRUKA), will fund four innovative projects focused on various maintenance activities. The first is a project led by teams at Cranfield University and Heriot Watt University that would develop a prototype Cab Front Cleaning Robot. The goal is to eliminate the serious safety risks associated with manual cleaning under 25-kilovolt overhead wires, around electrified third rails, or at great heights.
“The overall system will potentially include two robot arms for the right and left sides of the cab front,” said Mustafa Suphi Erden, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering & Physical Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. “Accordingly, the entire system may have two frames in mirrored positions to clean both the left and right sides of the cab front simultaneously.”
- Because the rail industry spends large sums of money on train maintenance activities, the market opportunity and cost-saving potential of robot train systems are great.
- Robotics and autonomous systems are particularly well suited for such activities because of these tasks’ complex and repetitive nature.
- Existing projects have already developed strong links between academia, commercial designers, and rail companies.
Automating wheel set inspections, track-side tasks
A second project, led by Southampton Solent University, aims to support staffers carrying out time-consuming and detailed manual inspections of railway wheel sets through the use of automated inspection and testing processes. It will also look at harnessing cutting-edge sensor technology to create a system capable of speeding up the detection process of small, hidden, and potentially crucial defects.
The third project will investigate the feasibility of using RAS to rework wheel sets that have worn down over time. Industry observers will likely watch this Birmingham University initiative closely because robot train maintenance should be an improvement over the current approach. The manual removal and repair of wheel sets often results in the need for premature replacement.
“The costs associated with maintaining and replacing wheel sets are prime elements in the overall expense of maintaining trains,” explained Sharon Odetunde, head of academic partnerships at RSSB. “Instead of removing material, this project will look at using an autonomous robotic system to add material back onto the surface of the wheel using 3D printing techniques.”
The fourth project is called Robust Automated Servicing of Passenger Train Fluids, or RASPT-F. Brunel University will investigate the technological feasibility of developing a fully autonomous track-side system for completing various externally accessible “fluid” service tasks on passenger train fleet.
According to Odetunde, research has already shown the potential benefits of using robot train systems to assist humans for the “4 Ds” — activities that are dangerous, difficult, dirty or dull. She said the repetitive and labor-intensive nature of train maintenance makes this an “ideal area to explore the use of such technology.”
“Improvements to train maintenance are of keen interest to the rail industry, as well-maintained rolling stock is a vital part of running any railway,” Odetunde said. “Trains are a complex mix of mechanical, electrical, pneumatic, and hydraulic parts that need to be inspected and maintained at regular intervals to ensure the safe and efficient operation of traction and rolling stock on the railway.”
Complex operations crucial to safety
One reason for using robotics for train maintenance is that existing maintenance and inspection process are very complex and vulnerable to error because of high dependence on humans.
Train maintenance is also commonly performed in difficult working conditions and often under time pressure. Odetunde argued that robot train maintenance would provide an
accurate and flexible” way of handling repetitive inspection processes in environments “where the defects may be very few and far between, but critical to safety in their nature.”
“In hazardous, high-voltage, and hard-to-access environments, robotic systems could potentially minimize the risks humans are exposed to,” she said. “The high accuracy and path repeatability of robotic systems enable them to repeat tasks that humans find dull and monotonous.”
In addition, the rail industry currently spends a “huge amount” on train maintenance, Odetunde said. That amount will to rise in the U.K. as major projects, like Crossrail and HS2, push depots to full capacity.
“Passengers are demanding more from the service, and the network is moving toward a 24/7 service,” she noted. “This means less downtime for trains. So the application of RAS technology could help the industry reduce maintenance time and cost and improve the reliability of rolling stock inspections.”
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Robot train programs must watch industry signals
Despite this rosy outlook, Odetunde emphasized that the rail industry is highly regulated. For maintenance staffers to accept new processes and products, university researchers and commercial developers need to pay careful consideration to “potential regulatory changes, changes to industry standards, and modifications to training needs,” she said.
“Another challenge area is understanding how humans and machines could interact and interface,” Odetunde added. “The projects that have been funded as part of this call for research need to focus not just on the engineering and design challenges, but also consider the impact on people.”
Odetunde believes the prospects for robot train systems serving the rail industry are plentiful.
“All of the projects funded as part of this call for research have strong industry links and are keenly focused on product development and commercialization,” she said. “The project teams have partnered industrial robotics companies, commercial designers, and train manufactures to ensure their ideas have a strong chance of success.”