How AI and 3D technologies are transforming rail safety

Global demand for rail travel is growing rapidly; passenger and freight traffic is expected double globally by 2050. As rail ridership increases, the promise of safer and more efficient rail infrastructure is critical and must be actively pursued by rail operators.

However, rail safety presents a multitude of unique challenges. There are innumerable vulnerabilities associated with rail infrastructure due to its complex nature and vast geographical area. Rail operators regularly face an array of hazards ranging from trespassing to theft, dangerous weather conditions and more. Despite a drop in ridership in 2020 due to the pandemic, there were still 783 rail-related deaths and more than 5,400 injured in the United States.

Several emerging technologies are revolutionizing railway safety and improving the efficiency of operations. Two of them in particular – 3D mapping technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) – have a significant impact on the ability to reduce disruption and protect rail assets, staff and passengers.

Regarding the former, 3D mapping technologies can be broken down into hardware and software components, both of which play a vital role in protecting rail infrastructure. By creating a complete, up-to-date, and easy-to-understand map, human operators can more quickly predict and detect potential security threats, and then make the most informed decisions about what to do next.

Of the mapping hardware components, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is perhaps the most important for rail. In short, LiDAR sensors use lasers to quickly scan and identify physical changes in the rail environment in high value areas, perimeters and areas, such as tunnels and rolling stock. LiDAR technology is able to assess an environment significantly faster than a rail operator could do manually. And the sooner a problem is identified, the faster an appropriate response can be made before an event like a service outage, or something more catastrophic, like a collision or derailment.

When LiDAR scans tracks, assets and the surrounding landscape, it collects so much precise and accurate information that it is possible for rail operators to create 3D digital maps. The most complete versions of these 3D maps are what are commonly referred to as digital twins, a realistic recreation of a real environment.

Digital twins are a fantastic tool for security personnel to monitor and predict the complex interactions of a railway environment and plan appropriate responses to potential incidents. Digital twins can be used to model not only infrastructure, but also moving assets (eg, trains themselves) and passenger movements. The predictive capabilities of a digital twin allow rail operators to be proactive in preventing potentially dangerous incidents before they occur.

Yet, while 3D mapping technology is an incredible resource, generating this type of map requires massive amounts of data that must be integrated and analyzed efficiently. Placing this burden on human operators alone becomes very difficult, but the process can be made more efficient by using AI. The AI ​​can quickly render digital twins as well as flag areas where an operator might need to investigate further.

Additionally, the AI ​​filters out incidents that can be detected by LiDAR sensors but do not necessarily need to be investigated by train operators. For example, railway environments are prone to many false positives, such as wildlife crossing the track versus human intruders. This allows human personnel to focus on potentially serious incidents.

Richer insights from 3D and AI technologies can also be integrated with other security and surveillance software and regional collaboration channels. This helps reduce false positives, enables coordinated responses in real time, minimizes network disruptions and risks, and ensures passenger and cargo safety.

Artificial intelligence and 3D technology complement each other to ensure a safer and more efficient railway infrastructure. They are synergistic in that AI can analyze huge amounts of data and quickly render 3D maps, and 3D maps make AI information more accessible to humans. When these emerging technologies are implemented, they can significantly reduce the dangerous and costly disruptions that can occur in the complex railway environment. Conclusion: As railway infrastructure evolves into the digital world, railway safety improves.

Melvin Z. Madore