A leader in wheel detection and axle counting, Frauscher Sensor Technology is looking to take track and train monitoring into the next dimension.

Since launching its Frauscher Tracking Solutions FTS, based on Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS) technology, in 2016, the Austrian supplier has been busy demonstrating its applications on networks across the globe.

Given the growing numbers of rail passengers worldwide, operators and infrastructure managers are under increasing capacity pressure. Keeping track and train downtime to a minimum, while maintaining high levels of safety, has never been so critical. Maximum availability across entire networks is now the name of the game.

Yet delivering such highly efficient rail operations calls for consistent monitoring in real time of components of every track and train.

This explains why, over the past five years, interest in fibre optic acoustic sensing, based on technologies such as DAS, has gained momentum among railway operators and signalling experts.

“We are constantly monitoring alternative technologies that could benefit the whole railway industry, and recognised the latter was becoming increasingly interested in using solutions based on DAS,” says Michael Thiel, CEO, Frauscher.

Virtual microphone

By sending laser pulses from an optical unit into the fibre 2,500 times/second, the fibre is transformed into a whole sensor that works like a virtual microphone. Sound waves hitting the cable cause minimal changes in its structure.

This leads to a shift in the reflection of the laser pulse,
which can be measured and set in relation to the time elapsed since sending out the pulse.

Based on DAS, the FTS can be operated using just a single core of a fibre optic cable. Since most rail operators already have such cables installed alongside their tracks for communication purposes, implementation of the new system is simple and quick.
Tests have shown that a single DAS unit
can optimally cover up to
40 kilometres of glass-fibre,
yielding a total range of 80 kilometres per unit

Tracking and monitoring in real time

Given the wide range of systems currently available for monitoring trains and tracks, what makes the FTS stand out?

“They provide real-time information along the whole network being monitored, enabling a range of applications that would require individual solutions if using specific systems, without the need for any on-board equipment,” Martin Rosenberger, Product Management Director, Frauscher, told BtoB Rail.

“Detecting flat wheels on trains is one such example. When combined with axle counters, which might be on site for track vacancy detection anyway, it is even possible to detect the exact axle on which a flat wheel has been tracked.
At the same time, the FTS deliver plenty more valuable information besides,” he added.

Step by step development

The first step involved developing a railway-specific DAS system capable of performing non-safety relevant basic applications. “At the same time, we were already focusing on creating a basis for combining this new system with proven axle counters and wheel detection systems, in order to design safety relevant applications,” explains Mr Rosenberger.

“The technology does have some limitations,” he concedes. “Plus, railway systems are far more complex then industries where it has already been used for many years.”
These drawbacks concern track ID, accuracy, and compliance:

• Track ID: DAS systems cannot identify whether the indications detected are on the track or close to it. Also difficult is pinpointing the track on which a train is moving within multi-track areas – a task nigh impossible for more complex track layouts;

• Accuracy: so far, DAS has not proven its capability to detect individual axles in a robust or failsafe manner, which is required for safety-relevant applications such as train integrity on long stretches of network;

CENELEC compliance: until now, basic developments and processes have generally not been fulfilled to create a solid foundation for SIL applications based on DAS. Also, existing limitations to the accuracy and location of occurrences must be resolved, at least to a certain degree, in order to comply with CENELEC standards.

“But by combining DAS with proven wheel sensors and axle counters, our FTS provide the information to overcome these limitations!” points out Mr Rosenberger.

Reality check

Since unveiling the FTS at InnoTrans 2016, further developments are heavily supported by data and experiences gathered in several field tests. To date, over 30 installations in the US, France, Australia, Turkey, India, and Austria have been conducted.

In all these pilots, Frauscher has further investigated applications such as train tracking, rail defects, rock fall and flat wheel detection. Also, more individual requirements have been identified in close cooperation with local operators, e.g. tracking animals near the tracks or identifying specific activities like cable tampering. Together with experts from across the globe, the company is now developing the FTS based on data and inputs direct from the field and markets.

During 2015, Frauscher entered into cooperation with Fotech Solutions Ltd. Together, the two parties designed the first railway-specific approaches to a market-ready status.

Appropriate progress included development of a new hardware architecture, design of interfaces, and implementation of logics that enable identification of a moving train as a detectable object.

Together both companies will be stepping up this work into 2018 to push these achievements to the next level.

Future forward

The FTS are one of the fruits of Frauscher’s R&D approach, ramped up since 2015 with an eye to meeting the future needs of the railways.

The Innovation Centre, opened in June 2016 at the company’s location in St Marienkirchen, Austria, now serves as an international platform for all its R&D activities. “Input from our customers and subsidiaries, as well as from universities and research institutions from across the globe will be gathered and evaluated here,” says Mr Thiel. “We are going to invest even more in R&D in the future and are looking for partnerships within new technological areas, such as DAS.”

As well as creating a new revenue stream, the company also expects the FTS to increase its existing core business – especially in markets like North and South America.

By combining our axle counters and acoustic sensing, we can deliver SIL 4 track vacancy detection in combination with rail defect detection as a very competitive and almost maintenance free solution, ” says Mr Thiel. “In addition, the FTS open up new application areas in asset condition monitoring, as well as safety and security.”

Click here to see the FTS in action

Michael Thiel

Martin Rosenberger
Product Management Director
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