Digitalisation is the future of managing railway assets

Sigma-Rail is investing in the power of data and automation to reduce costs of acquiring geographical data and supervision and maintenance of railway assets

Railways, Infrastructure, Sigma Rail, Unmanned aerial vehicle, Drone, Lidar, Asset management


Management of railway infrastructure is not an easy task, primarily because it is still a manual and labour-intensive process. Current methods of geographical data acquisition and supervision of railway assets takes considerable time, effort and resources. For example, the deployment of railway signalling and control systems requires railway workers to access the four foot, the area between the running rails of a standard-gauge track, even during live traffic, causing delays and putting their lives at risk. For surveillance and protection against security threats, railway lines rely on security guards and CCTV systems, which increases costs with expansion of the lines.

Aerial survey of railway infrastructure

Spain-based Sigma-Rail proposes that the costs of signalling, maintenance and security of rail corridors can be reduced significantly through digitalization and automation of geolocation and maintenance tasks. Sigma-Rail offers services for the capture, processing and visualisation of railway infrastructure data, both independently and as turnkey solutions.

Jorge Lopez-Sanchez, managing director, Sigma-Rail, says: “While operating high-speed lines, it is crucial to have accurate information about the number, status and location of all the assets installed on the railway lines. Sigma-Rail was founded to solve such problems faced by the railway industry. Our solutions help rail administrators acquire precise geographical data and asset status for corrective and preventive maintenance and control of rail corridors. Deployment of advanced signalling systems, such as ERTMS or ATC, can take advantage of Sigma-Rail technology.”

The capture of data, the initial step, is part of either a survey or surveillance operation depending on the construction stage of the railway line or client requirements. A combination of technologies are used for data capture, such as unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors and 360-degree cameras. The sensors and cameras can be mounted on a rail vehicle, drone or along the railway track.

An aerial or ground survey captures data in the form of pictures, videos, and 3D point clouds. They are integrated to create an accurate 2D or 3D digital model of the rail corridor. Engineers and project managers can then use such models and the data extracted from them to plan, design, construct or maintain a railway line.

Drones have become the preferred vehicles for Sigma-Rail to capture data because of their advantage over ground vehicles in performing surveys faster as well as advancements in their speeds, flight times and payloads. The company was the first in Spain to use drones to conduct a survey of the Alicante-Murcia high-speed line which is under construction.

Sigma-Rail used drones to conduct a survey of the Alicante-Muria high speed line in Spain

A drone flying on a survey mission

Sigma-Rail’s mission is ‘upgrading railways systems from the air.’ By using aerial high-precision images and data on the status of railway lines, all construction, maintenance and planning operations can be significantly improved and expedited, with the benefits of reducing safety and construction risks, improving quality and safety standards both for the operators and the end-users (passengers), and addressing typical construction issues like time, costs, budgeting, and planning.

“Drones are much more efficient that traditional methods that use ground vehicles and people to take measurements, repeatedly. However, we do not advocate a single technology or method of data capture because linear infrastructure such as railway lines, power lines and pipelines traverse different terrains such as cities and deserts, making it impractical to employ a single method across them. The choice of technology, vehicles, sensors and survey methods will depend on client requirements and constraints at sites, such as maintenance windows and accessibility. The data capture can be conducted by any other company and by using any brand of drone, camera or sensor. The client also specifies the frequency of data capture. What’s more important to our offering is to give meaning to all that data by processing data from various sources and integrating them to be presented on a single platform to facilitate decision-making,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

Once data is acquired directly by Sigma Rail or through another company, it’s processed and verified on a digital, cloud-based platform developed by Sigma-Rail, named SigmaQ, an equivalent of Google Maps for the railways. Previously called Skylynx, SigmaQ is a fully integrated solution comprising UAVs equipped with sensors, nesting platforms and back-end processing nodes that offer geographic information, maintenance, supervision and surveillance services of railways assets and infrastructures. It allows the information captured by the drones and post-processed to be accessed using a laptop, tablet or smartphone. The tool can provide additional layers of information for other activities such as maintenance. These additional layers could include images from 360-degree cameras mounted on trains, maintenance vehicles or from laser scanners. Technical documentation can be attached to the different layers, such as the signalling plans and/or the mechanical and electrical drawings associated with each of the infrastructure elements.

In addition, real time data related to weather conditions can be integrated in the platform. Information captured by drones through aerial thermography and ground-penetrating radar and reflected into SigmaQ can be relevant to underground, sub-soil, or sand conditions, which is particularly useful for GCC railway construction. As an example, the presence of chloride, a common underground agent with corrosive effect on steel, can be identified and mapped on SigmaQ.

“Data processing is our core business. We’ve developed our own image recognition algorithms using machine learning and deep learning to extract the data required by clients from the 3D models. We’ve developed our own technology for visualisation of data in a user-friendly format on a PC or smartphone. We’re following the building information modelling (BIM) methodology to include multiple layers of information. The software is compatible with any leading BIM software, and data can be migrated from SigmaQ to a BIM software and vice versa. Overall, the concept behind SigmaQ is new; currently, SigmaQ processes the data offline, but in future real-time data processing will be possible,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

Jorge Lopez-Sanchez, managing director, Sigma-Rail

Lopez-Sanchez gives a glimpse of the evolution of SigmaQ, into an autonomous UAV platform. The system will require autonomous bases at local maintenance centres along rail corridors. The autonomous bases will house UAVs that fly autonomously with coordination from the central control centre. The drones will be programmed to carry out support activities for the maintenance, operation and surveillance of the railway.

“If implemented, this will help digitalize the railway corridor with a high degree of automation, which will reduce the risk of unauthorised access and improve the planning and mobilisation of resources. The drones will be capable of landing at any base and recharge their batteries autonomously,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

Lopez-Sanchez points out that Sigma Rail’s offerings are not limited to railway infrastructure and that it can be extended to any other infrastructure project.

“Our services can be employed at any stage of a construction project: before construction for planning and designing, during construction for monitoring the progress of the project, maintenance after completion, or revamping an old railway track or building,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

An emerging opportunity for Sigma Rail is engineering and design support for projects through verification and validation of activities.

“We helped verify the installation of a high-speed line in Spain before the testing and commissioning stage by inspecting whether all the equipment such as signals and switches were installed as per the engineering specifications. Traditionally, they’d move on to the testing and commissioning stages after construction, and perform the testing of equipment manually by walking on the railway track. They would also require a train to test and additional time and money if there’re modifications. In comparison, our system analysed 92 engineering requirements and 3000 elements in less than a minute. Because the process was automated, fast, accurate, it helped the client save a lot of time and money,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

Sigma Rail is expanding its consultancy services to product lifecycle management, systems engineering, software engineering and design and project engineering. One of the promising outcomes of the company’s multifaceted offerings, according to Lopez-Sanchez, is that design and engineering activities will have a more integrated approach with more transparency and flow of information.

The railway industry and generally the construction industry faces the same issues with project management. Several companies work on a project and the flow of information is not enough or timely among consultants, engineers, contractors, etc., creating confusion about costs and responsibilities and making dispute resolution difficult. We can offer a single source of data in a standardised format from the concept to delivery stages and beyond by updating the data regularly and making it accessible to every party involved in a project,” he says.

Having a single source of data can also open a new revenue stream for infrastructure owners, according to Lopez-Sanchez.

“Currently, when developers issue tenders, they receive data and proposals in different formats from several companies. If they use a single source of data and manage it on a single platform, they would own their data entirely with a one-time investment. They could then can sell their infrastructure data to consultancy and construction firms instead of paying several companies to acquire and manage it for them. If a consultancy firm buys the digital model of an infrastructure from the owner, they need not spend time in acquiring or validating the data, and instead, they could focus on its core competency. The possibilities of infrastructure owners being able to own their data entirely and sell them to suppliers is a disruptive proposition. We envision this technology and process to pave the way for smart contracts in the construction industry,” explains Lopez-Sanchez.

Sigma Rail is gearing up for its first railway line mapping project in the MENA region, on a 500km line in Morocco connecting Casablanca, Rabat, and Tangier. Last year, the company executed its first project in the region, directly, as consultant to conduct an ERTMS audit of the Riyadh-Qassim railway line in Saudi Arabia.

“We’re also working towards market entry in the MENA region through a partnership with a UAE-based company. We expect to finalise and announce the deal in the third quarter of 2018,” says Lopez-Sanchez.

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