Not just a futuristic concept, the quaintly-named ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is the network of uniquely-identified physical objects which can be accessed through the Internet – usually using cloud-based technology. This offers real opportunities to take the management of transport networks such as London Underground to a new level by introducing connectivity, data collection and intelligence into the traditional management systems behind such businesses, then making use of smart devices and user- friendly platforms in order to control them.

Applying this technology can improve the efficiency of work carried out on transport networks. It is no longer a question of monitoring objects and fixing them when they go wrong. Now, collecting real-time information and intelligence allows their behaviour to be predicted so they get fixed before they have a chance to fail. These improvements improve reliability, service availability and cost effectiveness.

Cloud technology makes this possible by removing the need for localised processing and data storage, significantly reducing costs and enabling the data to be accessible from anywhere. Any number of assets are connected and managed, cheaply and quickly, via a pre-designed interface, thus creating an Internet of Things for the rail environment.

Introducing new technology

The development and application of sensors to monitor asset performance at a component level has paved the way, with companies such as technology services provider Telent already managing and often maintaining system elements remotely. Now, the ability to collect and store performance data, then analyse it and use it intelligently to predict, prevent and minimise the impact of equipment degradation, changes the way in which ever-more- efficient maintenance is carried out.

Microsoft has recognised the progress that Telent is making in the tangible application of these technologies and has identified work for London Underground as a great opportunity to bring its Azure Intelligent Systems Service to the market.

Steve Pears, managing director of Telent Rail, explains: “Our initial work with the Internet of Things started as part of our asset management work, which we carry out across the UK rail industry. Our customers want to run trains and they want the travelling public to be well informed during their journeys. They use us to provide, monitor and maintain the systems that inform, such as train times, public address and CCTV, and also to help them keep vital assets, such as lifts and escalators, operating.

“We were contracted by London Underground to update station information systems. As this was a ‘whole life’ contract, we were also to be responsible for maintaining the new assets as well as providing year on year efficiencies.”

This set the scene for a new approach which Telent has since taken into other rail contracts, including those with train operating companies. Many of the systems are IP based, connected by customers’ WANs
(wide area networks) and using these secure systems to monitor the status of devices.

A modest start

The project started with customer information and public address systems using some fairly basic tools. However, the benefit of being able to remotely monitor the status of these systems was quickly realised. Some of the assets are in difficult locations so being able to locate faults accurately and quickly and then arriving with the correct tools, spares and access equipment is crucial.

“Initially, we were using the Internet of Things to drive efficiencies in our maintenance organisation and to  help our customers mobilise the right organisation to get a first time fix,” Steve Pears continued. “Since then, we have continued to develop our monitoring and control skills. This has included giving our customers the capability to carry out remote monitoring via their PC, or on the move using a tablet.

“We have also extended the range of assets that we monitor. For example, just before the 2012 Olympics, London Underground wanted to ensure the best reliability of their lifts, particularly important during the Paralympics. Together, we used a variety of communications channels and added IP-connected Remote Terminal Units (RTUs) to monitor the critical parameters. This was a collaborative development – we provided the communications and monitoring skills and London Underground had the asset knowledge. This was a great success with excellent availability of these lifts throughout the games and since.”

Together, the two companies then embarked on further extending this approach by monitoring the status of escalators, control rooms and gathering data for the ‘cooling the tube’ programme. The consistent theme is that the availability of this data gathered from the Internet of Things drives performance improvements, assets are more available and maintenance costs are lowered.

Obvious benefits

Over the last two years, Telent has implemented asset-monitoring systems to deliver real-time feedback on key parameters that can affect asset performance. For example, monitoring the vibration on escalators to look
for an increasing trend which can indicate a potential failure. By alerting maintenance staff early, the status can be checked and rectified overnight resulting in reduced down time during service hours.

Increasingly, frontline staff are using tablets and mobile devices to respond effectively to alerts on site. Deploying Microsoft embedded technology in data gathering agents has provided an open extensible platform with a fast development cycle that can be supported long term.

Looking to the future, the next stage of development will focus on two key areas; prognostic assessment and enterprise integration. The vision is to have a system that defines the remaining useful life of an asset and integrates this knowledge seamlessly into the enterprise. Using web and mobile delivered data will enable operations and maintenance teams to see in real-time the detailed performance of their critical assets.

What is the overall impact today? Steve Pears is clear: “We are able to provide a more efficient service. We have cut costs. The assets we maintain and monitor have higher availability for supporting the travelling public. It takes less time to fix something that is broken and many of those things can often be fixed before they even fail.”