Union Pacific Railroad: Location Intelligence and the “Internet of Things”
Trains and railroads don't have the "coolness" factor like tablet computers. The transportation industry just doesn't have that same "wow" factor as mobile computing. Perhaps it's time to "rethink" the notion that heavy industry doesn't quite have that handle on information technology that others do.
I read two articles about Union Pacific Railroad's (UP) use of information technology to not only spot maintenance problems along their rail network but also to monitor all the moving parts of it's locomotives. InformationWeek's August 13th issue reported on how the company's CIO, Lynden Tennison, is using sensors, GPS, and wireless communications to make certain that trains don't break down. For Tennison, the "Internet of Things" can't come soon enough. Everyday, according to the article, UP monitor's 20 million wheel readings that trigger 1500 alterts, most of which are "strategic" and not a cause for concern. But Tennison's job is to spot trouble before it slows the 'velocity' of freight that moves through UP's network. If trouble is spotted, UP needs to know where and why. According to InformationWeek:
For railroads, location data is a big gap. While UP has GPS tracking on several thousand locomotives, GPS isn't reliable enough for safe dispatching and switching of trains--it isn't accurate enough to tell which of two parallel tracks a train is on. So the tracks have a location sensor about every 15 miles that tells a central dispatcher where a train is, leaving a lot of blind spots. And even at those markers, the system knows only that a train passed the spot. In terms of where a train will be in the next five minutes, one traveling 60 mph and accelerating is a lot different from one going 40 mph and slowing down.
Another reason trains don't use GPS is because there isn't universal cellular coverage along the tracks, especially in the vast expanses of the Western U.S., for trains to continually transmit their precise locations. Until the trains get that precise location data and ubiquitous wireless data coverage, railroads can't do a lot of the sophisticated routing, monitoring, and automated controls envisioned for the Internet of things.
Freight traffic is increasing in the United States. Rail rates are down and demand is up, much coming from power plant's demand for coal. But this increase causes Tennison nightmares as the strain on its assets grows. Ideally, he would like to have sensors on everything but the infrastructure is not there and the cost using today's technology is high.
"If I could wave my magic wand, I would love to have 4G networks everywhere across my tracks," Tennison says. "That would really change the game for us." The industry is funding research on space-based navigation options like GPS, hoping to find something that meets its requirements.
Sensors are another linchpin to the Internet of things. They're how we'll extract the data from all of these devices. Tennison can quickly spin out a list of places on a railcar he'd like to put sensors: on bearings to measure vibration to anticipate a failure; on a tanker valve to measure pressure and know if there's a leak of toxic gas; on doors to know if a high-value container has been opened.
Tennison's dilemma reminds of something I heard in the second episode of the video "Geospatial Revolution" produced by Penn State Broadcasting. There was an interview with Jack Levis, Director of United Parcel Service's (UPS) Process Management who said that, "We've moved from being a trucking company that has technology to a technology company that just happens to have trucks." UP is using technology in exactly the same fashion.
In the magazine, Trains, Tennison was asked about his investments in information technology:
In 95 percent of the cases, there are two underlying reasons why we make significant investments in information and communications technology. Either we’re driving efficiency through asset utilization, people utilization, and other types of capital avoidance or cost avoidance, or we are driving customer service or a differentiated product.
Whether is trains or trucks, you had better be looking to gather and analyze location-based data to drive efficiencies. And who said trains weren't fun anymore?