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Q&A – a guide to the Internet of Things with mpro5’s Chris Chinnapan

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Rail Insider talked to Chris Chinnapan, Transport Sector Director at mpro5, about the Internet of Things. In the process we learned out what relationship this rising technology has to rail and where it might take the industry in the future.

For the unacquainted, what is the Internet of Things (IoT)?

The internet of things simply means connecting physical objects to a network using sensors. This could mean attaching a sensor to a door to detect movement, or using a sensor to measure the CO2 content in a train station. These sensors communicate using the internet, typically with some kind of database aggregating this information.

Being given a constant feed of information from this network of sensors can give you real-time alerts and long-term insight into a building, site or station – helping you to see what’s going on and where, which hopefully gives you the ‘why’.


How are we currently seeing this IoT technology applied in stations and station management?

IoT in stations is still a relatively new concept, because without the ability to process or action this data it’s not very useful. However, many in the transport industry are exploring the benefits it could have, particularly for station management, as it can provide visibility and control of many otherwise disparate systems, as long as you have the right strategy for data structuring and visualisation.

There is a huge range of use cases for sensors, from monitoring ambient conditions such as light, temperature and humidity, to asset management and crowd control. These applications all have this in common: IoT offers real-time monitoring as well as the data for long-term analysis and understanding.


How much time will they will need to train staff and embed IoT-driven ways of working into the business?

It depends on the use and software behind the network. A quality, adaptive platform needs very little training, and people should be able to use it intuitively with next to no training, much like any consumer app.

This point is critical to making IoT worth doing: it needs a practical and accessible software solution at its core for employees to make real use of it.


What are the benefits of incorporating this technology into rail?

It has a huge range of benefits, including increases in efficiency and insight into your operational effectiveness, the condition of assets and much more:

  • Remote monitoring of assets will help you create a better informed PPM regime, reducing the need to buy new equipment and the cost of repairing it. Collecting this data also gives insight into which brand or model may be more resilient or more energy efficient for example.
  • Detailed, real-time insight into active individual process – for example, if a toilet door opens 100 times, you know it’s time for the cleaners to go in, clear up and restock consumables. This saves time – as staff only do what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, rather than wasting time on outdated or inaccurate fixed schedules. This can also be a massive help during periods of vacancies or understaffing.


How widespread has it become in the rail industry?

IoT is not very widespread in the rail industry yet. Some of the industry is still using pen and paper, so digital transformation has been slow – despite its importance the task is understandably daunting for TOCs who have disparate processes and complicated set-ups.

But rail reform will push them towards a digital solution for their operations, and it will only be a matter of time before they start leveraging their solutions to manage IoT networks with the aim of improving the passenger experience.


Why do you think this is the case?

IoT has been around for a very long time – it first originated in factories, where complex machines needed to be monitored constantly to ensure the smooth running of an operations.

The challenge for rail has been the value for Train Operators: Many companies have invested in IoT without a clear goal beyond innovation, and this has resulted in some very minimal returns.

However, as works management, data aggregation and real-time visualisation solutions are more prevalent, the case for IoT has become far more compelling.

This is especially true in the UK, as the government’s rail reforms are pushing all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to on-board a digital solution for their Service Quality Regimes.


What should people think about if deciding on a new digitalisation solution?

People have to remember that data on its own is practically useless. You need to be able to harvest data, have it all accessible in one place, have the tools to create insight into said data, and most importantly, create meaningful actions from it in order to see real value released.

Ideally, you want a digital solution that’s fully configurable, data agnostic and can integrate with any legacy systems you have.

The service offered is also key, a responsive support team and regular contact with the company should be considered, as should the level of configuration offered and the time to deliver new features, changes or fixes.


What are the potential mistakes you can make when incorporating IoT technology?

The main mistake is getting software that doesn’t work with all sensors – as this is very restricting when purchasing new equipment (much of which has sensor tech built in). Software has to be hardware agnostic.

With so much innovation, and new hardware innovations appearing every day, it is vital that software can work with all of them. Many organisations fail at this hurdle – and have to continue repurchasing new softwares regularly rather than having a fix-all, flexible solution.

If it is too complicated or too difficult to implement into peoples’ daily regimes, management and operations teams won’t use it on a day-to-day basis, and it will never be able to reach its cost-saving potential.


What are the best ways to avoid those issues?

Use software that’s adaptive and configurable to different uses, and make sure you don’t just choose a product or a brand, but also a technology partner which can help you implement the tech and digitally transform your processes.

Make sure that training is targeted and considers’ your users’ needs – some people might simply want to be shown on the job, others might want a workshop. Technologies like this only show their true value when everyone is using it – as you need a full ‘field of vision’ in terms of data gathering.

Be open to change. Digital transformation may take some effort and a new way of thinking, but there’s a reason it has such an impact on efficiency, productivity, and accuracy: the benefits are exponential when you embrace it.


What do you think we will see in terms of IoT development in the future?

Sensors will become more accurate and able to measure new things. They will be used more widely and in more industries – helping to drive efficiency across the board.

Smart cameras are still in their infancy, but they have the potential to learn a huge amount of human behaviours and identify anything from suicide risks on platforms to security threats, whilst still maintaining personal anonymity for anyone the camera “sees”.

I also think IoT will be seen as vital in the move to a greener and more carbon neutral future. Learning to use less energy by being more efficient and sparing, and by doing more with the same amount, is as vital to the move to net zero as brilliant new technologies or transformations in energy production. 

Chris Chinnapan is Transport Sector Director at mpro5. Learn more about what they do here.

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