AP Sensing Takes off on a New Track

An AP Sensing collaborative project, ‘SpectRail’, has recently been awarded funding in one of the UK Department of Transport’s competitions. The competition is operated by Innovate UK and part of the industrial end user, Network Rail’s R&D programme of innovative projects to support research, development and innovation in the rail industry.

SpectRail is a cost-effective intelligent infrastructure project utilizing self-powered fiber acoustic transmission for railway monitoring; it is being developed by a consortium of technology companies. The project is maintenance-free, fast to fit, flexible, self-powered and able to collect data at almost all locations.

AP Sensing Director of Research and SpectRail project leader Dr. Gareth Lees discussed some of the project’s benefits and novel capabilities. “Beyond our proven DAS [Distributed Acoustic Sensing] benefits such as monitoring train location and detecting wheel flats, cable theft, and trespass, this project expands into previously unexplored areas of rail monitoring. Some of the unique functionalities we are working on are monitoring pollution and graffiti-in-progress. Not only does this cut costs for the railway operators, but users will reap the benefits of increased safety and decreased pollution.”

The project provides the infrastructure owner with a cost-effective, low-energy and easy method of collecting targeted and actionable asset condition knowledge, enabling a predict-and-prevent maintenance strategy. Utilizing Distributed Acoustic Sensing information in combination with two other cutting-edge technologies, the project will monitor rail temperature, soil saturation, fire detection, graffiti-in-progress, and pollution.

AP Sensing is collaborating on the project with technology partners Pyreos, Lightricity, Network Rail and Compound Semiconductor Applications (CSA) Catapult to deliver an unprecedented combination of technologies that utilize Network Rail’s existing fiber optic network. The first of these technologies is AP Sensing’s fiber optic acoustic sensing, which ‘listens’ over a 70 km range by observing minute changes in light transmission caused by fiber movements. This allows for detection and localization of acoustic events.

Secondly, the technology incorporates acoustic transducers that ‘tap’ on the fiber to transmit data. These are integrated into intelligent sensor nodes designed to interface with a wide range of sensors and utilize ultra low-power digital infrared detectors for gas, flame and motion detection from Pyreos. Lastly, high-efficiency photovoltaic panels are used to harvest energy at the sensor nodes. When paired with smart power management, these panels allow for a 10-year fit-and-forget sensor lifetime, even in low light or indoor applications.

When probed about the strengths of his team, Dr. Lees stated: “The project provides a unique opportunity for collaboration among experts from different fields. Lightricity has the most efficient energy-harvesting solar cells in the world – you can’t buy more efficient solar panels. Pyreos provides the low-power gas detectors and point detectors that connect to our fiber optic system, while CSA Catapult can bring these technologies together into intelligent and self-sustaining sensor nodes that interact with the DAS. On our side, it is the DAS software and data science team, as well as our project engineers who will be installing and commissioning the multi-sensor system on Network Rail’s test track.”

SpectRail aims to solve challenges often faced in the rail environment – high costs, harsh conditions, and large, remote areas with a lack of suitable power supply or data connectivity. The project goal is to automate required train inspections and increase data collection, making it easier to monitor rail assets, as well as greatly expanding the types and quantities of assets monitored.

The grant is for a nine-month period to demonstrate proof of concept, in which the team will be integrating their three unique technologies for the first time and installing end-to-end prototypes. At the end of the project, the team will run two months of field trials on a test track.