Tech consultant and IoT proponent Paul Hemlett explores the need for critical infrastructure investment in the rail sector.
Railway systems and technology development have been picking up steam over the years. With next generation technology adoption and alternatives to operations through Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) making their way into the industry, the development curve in the railway industry could pick up a curve similar to the development of self-driving cars – except on a much larger scale.
Susan Beardslee, Senior Analyst at ABI Research, said: “Relatively nascent technologies developing for freight include alternative fuel and energy efficient locomotives and wagons, train control systems, video surveillance, predictive maintenance, intelligent rail infrastructure and operations, Freight Information Systems (FIS), and safety systems.”
Ongoing research and development into newer technologies furthers the concept and highlights the need for investment in critical infrastructure and its changes. Investment fund Boundary Holding, founded by Rajat Khare, recently announced its investment in KONUX, an Industrial IoT and AI analytics company based in Munich, Germany. The Smart Railway firm has also received investments from Alibaba, New Enterprise Associates, Upbeat Ventures and MIG AG; making it one of the few startups to have had a strong start in the overhaul of conventional rail transport with AI and IoT at its core.
Likewise, Europe has seen plenty of startups in railway AI industry raising funds – either to optimise and rehash the current operations or to provide newer and better services based around existing infrastructures. UK-based firm Fetch.ai has raised $15 million (€13.43 million) in its seed round from Outlier Ventures and an additional $6 million in its Initial Coin offering (ICO). AI firm Perpetuum has been backed by venture capital investors Environmental Technologies Fund, IP Group, Spark Ventures, Albion Ventures and Wyvern Fund.
The investments are not localised solely within the EU. In a recent investment, RailVision, an Automated Early Warning System for Train Safety from Israel, made significant inroads into the EU rail market with trial runs in Deutsche-Bahn and Trenitalia. The company has also raised funds totalling $10 million (€8.95 million) from Knorr-Bremse AG, a German manufacturer, in a corporate investment round.
The rail industry is further pulling in massive interest from large AI firms. IBM Watson, the flagship AI product developed by IBM, manages and delivers superior customer experiences for France’s national train operator SNCF. As the national train operator, SNCF already serves around two billion passengers – thus corroborating the utility of industrial IoT and AI technologies in managing critical infrastructure. Prior to IBM-SNCF, EU has seen several partnerships at scale including:
- Tier-One Bosch’s work with SBB Cargo on Asset Monitoring for Railway Applications (AMRA);
- Alstom’s rail autonomy project in the Netherlands, with an approximate 62-mile test track;
- BNSF (owned by Berkshire Hathaway) becoming the first rail company to join the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA); and
- The Thales Group’s CyberRail solution, designed to protect critical data infrastructures such as operation control centres.
Other projects undertaken by the European Union include:
- London Underground – a similar modernisation programme based on computer-based signalling and control system to overhaul signalling on some of the oldest parts of the London Underground, due by 2023;
- Digital Railway – controlling and managing rail traffic which uses train’s location, speed and braking power to space them more efficiently along tracks, which would increase capacity; and
- Shift2Rail – aiming to make the rail sector more competitive, this probably is the largest project undertaken in the EU; with plans to invest nearly €1 billion in research and the support of a broad range of rail operators such as SNCF, Bombardier, Siemens, Alstom and Network Rail.
The change, however, is not limited to next generation technologies and investments. There have been some companies working the rounds in investment circles in the railway industry using alternative solutions to conventional methodologies. Companies like Commtrex, working in the rail e-market; Railnova, which focuses on fleet management and predictive maintenance; and Activu, which has developed a visualisation and collaboration tool for critical command rooms, are addressing industry pain points with different solutions for the industry.
The application of IoT and AI across the EU’s vast rail network by these paradigm-shifting organisations is expected to attract critical infrastructure investment as well as meeting the pressing need to rehaul the railway infrastructure.
Tech startup Consultant/proponent of IoT