The research and development (R&D) unit within Union Pacific Corp.’s information technology department is charged with evaluating emerging technologies to determine rail-operation applicability. In Emerging Technologyville, there’s plenty that’s applicable, as General Director-Systems Engineering Dan Rubin demonstrated during an April 23 presentation and facility tour at UP headquarters in Omaha, Neb. In addition to pioneering work with NetControl (UP's multi-year project to replace TCS, a 40-year-old IBM mainframe-based transportation system) and motes (which enable railroads to install a radio frequency identification tag containing numerous sensors on rail cars), the IT group has been applying technology, big time, in recent years. Here's a sampling of their work. (Technology descriptions provided by UP.)
Locomotive voice radio
In 2004, UP began looking at options for an alternate source of the locomotive voice radio, ultimately deciding to design a modular-based locomotive radio solution in house. The resulting locomotive voice radio interface supports commercially available radios from multiple manufacturers. Benefits include the ability to use the same power supply for all locomotive models and a common control head that enables the user to control the channel, volume, etc., minimizing required training. The radio’s modular design provides UP the ability to migrate to the next-generation radio without redesigning the entire locomotive radio — an advantage that was first realized through the minimal economic impact of the migration to 12.5kHz narrowband radio signals, UP says. Currently, there are about 15,000 UP-designed radios in operation across North America.
In conjunction with UP’s initiative to extend IP to every edge of the railroad, UP has been migrating its analog infrastructure to a digital infrastructure. One of the initiative's original requirements was that the conversion could not require the wholesale replacement of the endpoints that did not support an IP interface. To fulfill this requirement, UP developed an IP-to-serial converter (IPX), which supports encapsulation of serial data, and monitoring and control of discreet signals. The IPX solution has enabled UP to provide redundant communication coverage through the IP rollout. There now are more than 3,000 IPX units in service on the UP.
Ancillary card cage
Like many other railroads, UP in the past relied on proprietary solutions — either internally designed or procured from a third party — to support locomotive monitoring and communication systems. As these systems became obsolete, the equipment had to be replaced and another solution integrated. In 2009, UP began developing a standard-platform solution to support all on-board locomotive applications with the first prototype of this technology, called an ancillary card cage, which was rolled out in 2010. After testing, UP released the design to the industry and it was adopted as a standard by the Association of American Railroads, with various railroads and vendors now building to it, UP says.
Today, most UP locomotives have seven to 10 antennas mounted on the roof in various locations. Most were installed based on convenience, not necessarily where the best radio coverage location dictated. With additional locomotive systems being delivered, the number of antennas will grow to 14 to 17 per unit. To meet the additional antenna requirements, UP began developing an alternate method for installing the antennas, addressing the variability of antenna placement, minimizing the repair time and ensuring functionality across various railroad environments. In 2010, UP developed its first prototype "antenna farm," which is now in production and installed on about 2,400 locomotives.
Integrating commercial RFID readers with existing AEI tags
The Automated Equipment Identification (AEI) system was adopted as an industry standard in the mid-1980s, utilizing the same technology as the present-day Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Instead of purchasing a custom reader designed for railroads, UP in 2009 evaluated using industrial off-the-shelf RFID readers to support the AEI system, which provided the potential benefit of taking advantage of technology improvements driven by commercial users. After finding that commercially available readers would work in rail environments, UP adopted a commercial RFID vendor and had it modify the reader and its software to read AEI tags. Although it took several years to get the software to an operational state, the venture ultimately led to lower reader costs, UP says. In addition, the modular design can support other initiatives and migrations to alternate architectures.
Today’s UP locomotives record several data streams from the various on-board locomotive systems. Some recorded data streams require a crashworthy data recorder be added to an event recorder. The addition of the new crashworthy recorder causes space constraints and requires all the data captured to be synchronized, so UP is working with a vendor to develop a single recorder that will support multiple data feeds and synchronize the data as it is being recorded. This new solution not only resolves the space and synchronization problems, but also lays the groundwork for the next-generation on-board recording system, which will replace the existing event recorder with a data acquisition module and the existing outward-facing video recorder with a video processing module. UP plans to develop standard interfaces for recording and playback of the data, which can enable these interfaces to be adopted as railroad standards.
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