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Industrial Internet Helps the Trains Run on Time

August 25, 2014
The morning commute is primed for innovative disruption, whether you’re spending hours sitting in traffic jams to stuck inside a jam-packed subway car. SkyTran, an elevated transit system that’s being developed in partnership with NASA, aims to make commuting hassles a thing of the past by zipping passengers around in futuristic-looking driverless pods suspended high above the ground.

SkyTran is just the latest public transportation initiative to tap into the wide expanse of the Internet and the latest in data-collecting software as the central drivers of its day-to-day operations. Perhaps as much as high-speed rail, the Industrial Internet has the potential to fundamentally alter mass transit and cargo hauling.

In the case of SkyTran, the pods and the tracks transporting riders are under constant monitor by the software that operates it. “There are no conductors,” says Jerry Sanders, CEO of the California-based company.

The pods, which look like something straight out of “The Jetsons,” are connected to an overhead track using magnetic levitation, or maglev, a passive form of levitation that provides enough energy to project the pods at speeds approaching 150 miles an hour. SkyTran boasts it can carry 12,000 people an hour, two people to a pod.

While rail travel of the future won’t always be moving at such high speeds, the use of technology to improve efficiencies and cut costs is a key promise of the Industrial Internet.

London’s famed subway system, the Underground, has is using the Industrial Internet to monitor signal disruptions, track conditions, even the climate inside the cars. The London Underground teamed up with Telent, Microsoft and CGI earlier this year to place sensors at critical locations of the Tube’s entire infrastructure.

With a record 3.5 million people — roughly the population of Lithuania — riding London’s subway system a day, there are bound to be issues with deteriorating tracks and broken air conditioners. The sensors transmit data, such as temperature and fault warnings, to London’s central control centers, where the decision can be made whether to deploy someone to fix the air conditioner inside a car or a broken escalator at a station. Passengers can also hear about delays via mobile apps or text alerts. If successful, the initiative is projected to reduce the London Underground’s support network costs by 30 percent.

SkyTran, which plans to test out its system on a 1,312-foot loop at the campus of Israel Aerospace Industries in Tel Aviv, is also a study in how smart rail holds the potential to both improve service and reduce costs. Passengers can use an app to reserve their pods, which pick them up at the time and of their choosing. The software won’t send the pod along a predetermined route, but instead help determine the fastest route along its network of tracks.

“This is like Google on steroids,” says Sanders. “As soon as you touch that app, SkyTran will know who you are — it will know your travel habits.”

The system is also designed to keep operating expenses contained. “We virtually have very low maintenance costs because there are no mechanical flying parts, and very low operating costs because we have very few personnel operating the system,” he says. If successful, SkyTran has eyes on developing routes in San Francisco and India.

Cost benefits aside, the Industrial Internet aims to help public transportation innovators achieve their goal — get passengers to their destinations swiftly and soundly.

Top gif: Courtesy of SkyTran.