AutumnSense: a sensor solution to ‘leaves on the line’

AutumnSense, a sensor technology developed at the University of Birmingham’s technology transfer company Alta Innovations, is likely to resolve the ‘autumn delays’ caused by accumulation of leafy slush on train tracks.

Thousands of train commuters are faced with frustration each autumn, particularly in mid-November, when leaf loss and high levels of air or ground moisture couple together. This results in wet leaves that are mixed with moisture or dew, creating a slippery, Teflon-like substance. The wet leaves may result in a safety challenge for train operators as they potentially double the breaking distance and cause signaling issues. In addition, the wet leaves, due to their electrically insulating effect, result in ‘disappearing trains’ on the rail control system by preventing operation of track circuits.

However, train delays due to wet leaves may be a thing of the past if AutumSense is adopted by the railway networks. University of Birmingham’s professor of Climate Resilience, Lee Chapman, was inspired to develop the prototype by the Internet of Things (IoT) which utilizes innovative power, communication and sensing technologies to collect and record real-time ground data.

Professor Chapman worked on transforming AutumnSense into a reality, and was funded by EPSRC and the Rail Safety and Standards Board. His new technology continuously measures moisture levels at potential sites on the railway lines across the network using cost-effective sensors.

This data is then linked with the leaf-fall forecast, and together, the information helps track operators forecast where and when the risk of autumn delays is the greatest, hence allowing precise and efficient use of automated treatment trains to clear the wet leaves before morning rush hour begins.

“One of the major issues with road and rail safety is that hazardous conditions are usually highly localized. For remedial actions to be efficient and demonstrate best value for the taxpayer, resources should be deployed where they are needed, rather than in a blanket fashion,” Professor Chapman said while elaborating upon the technology.

He added that even though automated treatment trains worked round-the-clock from October to December, and leaf loss and damp conditions were predictable, a single windy rainy night could still potentially cause havoc for commuters.

“We have run an initial trial of AutumnSense on a stretch of London Underground tracks that are above ground, and are hoping to move quickly towards a fuller network wide trial,” he commented.

Professor Chapman’s team is now testing the next element of the solution; a low-cost method to count the number of leaves remaining on the trees. The team had previously developed low-cost devices fitted to lamp-posts which measured and transmitted information on road surface temperatures to precisely identify where road gritting was required.  The technology, called WinterSense, is currently under test by commercial partners, and is expected to be in mass production by the end of this winter.

The team is now marketing AutumnSense and WinterSense through AltaSense, an operating division of Alta Innovations, and hopes to incorporate the technology by Autumn 2017.

More information can be found at: University of Birmingham.

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