Robotic systems for improving rolling stock inspections
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Four innovations using robotic technology to help improve the maintenance of rolling stock are ready to be taken forward and developed by the rail industry.

The projects, part of an RSSB funded programme of work, address the need to deliver greater capacity, improve safety and reduce the time and cost of maintenance during rolling stock inspections.

Well maintained rolling stock is a vital part of running any railway and robotic systems can provide an accurate and flexible way of handling inspection processes in repetitive environments where defects may be few but are safety critical.

The innovations include automated servicing of train fluids, a cab front cleaning robot and different testing techniques for railway wheelsets.

List of projects

Robust Automated Servicing of passenger train fluids – Brunel University

This project developed an autonomous system for performing fluid servicing tasks including the topping-up of water, windscreen wash, wheel sand and the emptying of effluent for passenger trains. Two approaches were identified, a cartesian design, with a hose dispensing rack and an articulator design with hose reels for various fluids.

The quality of fluid servicing will improve as a monitored automated system can deliver a reduction in out-of-service trains due to missed top-ups. The increase in servicing capacity helps ensure that the overall capacity on the network is maintained, helping to improve the efficiency of train operating companies and reduce operating costs.

Brunel University will now design and build a scaled down proof-of-concept system before building a full-scale working prototype, to be tested on a dedicated vehicle test platform. Once the prototype testing is complete, the autonomous system will be installed into a maintenance workshop and used to service a selection of in-service vehicles before working with industry to tender a commercial solution. 

Cab Front Cleaning Robot – Cranfield University, Heriot-Watt University

The sides of trains can be cleaned by machines using rollers, but the complicated shape of cab fronts with curved surfaces, pockets or concaves around the coupler and bumpers including wipers means they are currently cleaned manually. This presents several health and safety risks.

This project designed and constructed a prototype which is a low-cost, robust and easy to use that washes the cab front nose and body end panels between carriages. The cleaning head is mounted on a robot wrist with an orthogonal base and designed so the cleaning head applies a constant force as it moves across the surface of the front cab.

A pre-commercial prototype can be deployed at a test and used to factor in additional practical challenges, such as water proofing and various cleaning conditions.

Enhancing and automating non-destructive testing techniques for railway wheelsets – Southampton Solent University

Using infra-red and electro-magnetic sensors to create a richer picture, high definition imaging can identify cracks and damage not seen by the naked eye. This project discovered that fully automated image processing has the potential to be used for detecting, extracting and analysing small features and defects in wheel rims. The technology enables the identifying of sub-surface flaws earlier which will help support the maintenance process.

The next stage requires the development and testing of an industrial grade prototype followed by a pre-commercial prototype to be deployed on a test site.

Feasibility of the use of autonomous robotic systems for wheelset reworking – University of Birmingham

This project looked at automating inspection techniques with 3D printing to add material back onto the surface of wheels to repair any damage. The point cloud scanning and path planning algorithms developed as part of the project can also work for a range of railway components.

The technique reduces the whole-life maintenance costs of trains by reducing the time required to perform inspection and maintenance activities - extending the interval between boogie overhauls and the overall life of wheelsets.

The next phase of research will focus on the development of emerging wheelset inspection technologies.

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