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Smart and sustainable trains

Autonomous technology gives trains new super powers – including some that might surprise you

Imagine if your train could “see” and “think” for itself. It sounds like science fiction. But thanks to Thales, trains with autonomous capabilities are already becoming a reality. 


What exactly is an autonomous train?

A fully-autonomous train is one that can interpret its surroundings, make decisions and drive itself according to its mission, without any need for human intervention. We are not there yet – but the technology is developing rapidly. In fact, several of the building blocks for autonomous operation are already being deployed or nearing maturity.

Autonomous positioning is one of them. This enables the train to determine its precise location and speed by itself, using onboard sensors, such as radar, inertial measurement units (IMUs), GPS and UWB radio. “This minimises the need for maintenance-intensive trackside systems and at the same time accelerates deployments of new signalling,” says Walter Kinio, VP, Research and Innovation at Thales. “An autonomous positioning product for metro operators is now in the pipeline. Thales is also developing similar technology for main line environments.”
Automatic Train Operation (ATO) is another stepping stone on the way to autonomy. ATO automates departure, acceleration and braking, providing trains with computerised driving instructions. Ultimately, ATO will be integrated with autonomous operation to provide passengers with the perfect ride. “ATO is a transition technology,” says Cristiana Perlongo, Product Line Manager for Autonomy at Thales. “It’s crucial, because it takes us from automatic to autonomous operation.” 

Remote control takes railways one step nearer to full autonomy. This allows operators based in a central location to take control of a train without having to be onboard – making it possible for a train to continue its journey if the driver falls ill, or if there is a problem with ATO. Remote control has already been successfully demonstrated by Thales.  

Obstacle detection is the final piece of the puzzle. This is the ability to detect, recognise and respond to objects in front of (and around) the train using sensors and sophisticated computer algorithms. Obstacle detection is a core requirement in a fully-autonomous and driverless system. But it delivers benefits in conventional driver-operated systems as well. “The detection system is able to identify signals,” says Perlongo. “So even in darkness or poor visibility, it will provide the driver with vital assistance.”

The beauty with autonomy is that any type of train can be retrofitted – high-speed, main line, metro or tram, passenger or freight. The sensors and software that bring autonomy to life can be installed rapidly. In the case of metro trains, this can be in as little as two days. 


Sustainability in the spotlight

Autonomy delivers big operational benefits. But could it help to improve sustainability as well? The answer is emphatically yes. Autonomy delivers both direct benefits (energy savings) and indirect benefits (performance enhancements that make rail more attractive to passengers). Let’s look at those benefits in more detail:

Energy savings – this benefit is derived via Automatic Train Operation. “If you want to go from A to B in a certain time, with a certain maximum allowed speed, you have to think about the best traction and braking dynamics,” Perlongo explains. “Automatic systems calculate the optimum speed curve better than a human driver, consistently reducing CO2 emissions and saving energy. Passengers also get a smoother ride.”

Enhanced performance – autonomous technology allows train operators to increase both capacity and punctuality. “These two topics are linked because the higher the level of autonomy, the faster the reaction time of the train. Autonomous operation also improves timetable adherence because driving is optimised,” says Perlongo. All of this helps to make taking the train an attractive alternative to journeys by road. This matters, because rail consumes 12 times less energy and emits up to 11 times less CO2 per passenger kilometre compared with cars and aeroplanes.

Reliable railways – nothing is more off-putting for passengers than delays and cancellations. One of the big attractions of autonomous technology is that it boosts reliability and cuts downtime. Autonomous positioning for metros is an example: “You have the ability to get positioning information from either end of the train, so there’s a big improvement in terms of system availability,” says Kinio. 

Opex and capex savings – a key benefit of autonomous operation is the ability to reduce the extent to which trackside infrastructure is required. Autonomous positioning, for example, means conventional train detection is no longer required. All the intelligence is onboard, rather than at the trackside – reducing the maintenance burden, saving hundreds of kilometres of copper cable and minimising the threat of cable theft. A “lean” trackside environment means lower costs and shorter deployment time – key considerations as governments look to boost rural railway networks and build new lines.

Unexpected insights – research into autonomy is revealing some surprises. “The benefits are turning out to be a lot broader than we thought,” Kinio says. “For example, we can use our onboard sensors to measure ride quality and identify areas of track that need attention. We can also gather information about the wayside – everything from checking that maintenance work has been done correctly to identifying overhanging trees. The data opens up a lot of doors.”

Autonomy is still a work in progress. But the technology is maturing rapidly. Thales has a vision for autonomy and we are working in partnership with our customers to deliver the transformation.