Riding the Rails with Positional Awareness

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In January 2011, on a foggy night in central Germany, a freight train ran through two red light signals, ultimately crashing into a passenger train in a tragic accident that killed ten people. Such accidents are remarkably common – train collisions occur more than once per day across Europe, not only threatening the lives of passengers, but also leading to millions of euros in damage to transportation infrastucture. Intelligence on Wheels was co-founded by Thomas Strang to address train safety problems, bringing positional and tracking technology from the aviation industry into what Strang characterizes as “the very conservative railway domain.” The company seeks to address three inter-related challenges. Self-localization is not as straightforward as in aeronautic applications, since subterranian tunnels and deep valleys can render GPS ineffective. Strang hopes to enact inter-train communication without the need for base stations, satellite communication, or cables, lowering infrastructure costs and minimizing the barrier to entry. The situational awareness of identifying potential collisions is a critical software challenge that would allow for cross-talk between equipped trains. As elegant as the company’s modular solution appears, its ultimate success may depend on broad adoption by the rail community, a sort of “herd immunity” concept analogous to community-scale vaccination. But for now, Strang has successfully brought a potentially life-saving technology from the lab to the real world. “What started as a scientific problem,” he says, “is now a solution available on the market.”

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