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Internet of Things June 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

Digitizing Rail Infrastructure

Why is this topic significant?

Upgrading rail infrastructure to enable more advanced interactions between trains, signals, and control centers presents a nearly unique challenge for IoT technology, combining needs for smooth operation, safety, and robust cybersecurity.

Description

Network Rail, the company that operates and maintains the United Kingdom's rail network, has announced plans for a "digital overhaul" of the country's rail signaling system. The current analog signaling system is largely antiquated, and Network Rail estimates that about half the system will require replacement in the next 15 years. The planned digital system will enable more trains to use the existing lines, and Network Rail hopes that the new system will reduce the present number of signaling faults (about ten per day) across the network.

Replacing the country's analog signal system is part of a wider scheme to bring the United Kingdom's rail network in line with the requirements of the European Train Control System (ETCS). Network Rail began partially implementing ETCS-compliant systems almost a decade ago, but most of the United Kingdom's rail infrastructure has yet to receive upgrades.

Modernized rail signaling enables enhanced use of existing rail infrastructure. For example, Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR; which operates several rail services in and around London, England) began using ETCS-based equipment to enable partially autonomous trains in early 2018. Trains on the company's Thameslink route use a fly-by-wire system without driver input over a stretch of track in the center of London. GTR estimates that moving to the fly-by-wire system will increase the frequency of trains through central London from 14 per hour to 24 per hour, with a theoretical system capacity of 30 per hour.

Implications

One of the ways that the Internet of Things can manifest is in so-called silos of interoperability—that is, in systems that are highly vertically integrated within a particular company, facility, or industry but that have little or no ability to interact smoothly with external entities. In this scenario, IoT technology often fails to reach its full potential.

However, in industries such as transport, establishing a clearly delineated silo of functionality is not only acceptable but highly desirable from a cybersecurity perspective, because it greatly reduces the potential attack surface for malicious actors. Indeed, part of the reasoning behind continuing to use legacy systems, both in the rail sector and elsewhere, is that older systems are often more difficult to infiltrate. Similar considerations could apply to air transport, shipping, and utility grids.

Impacts/Disruptions

Upgrading rail signaling to connected digital systems will have a high impact on rail operators, enabling greater densities of trains to run on existing tracks. In addition to IoT service providers, other important beneficiaries of automated train services are manufacturers of rolling stock.

Increasing the density and fluidity of rail operations—in particular, improving interoperability across the European rail network—could offer a compelling alternative to road transport for goods and air transport. However, increasing levels of automation in the rail sector also places an existential threat to many jobs, and the UK rail industry has seen numerous strikes in recent years resisting plans to reduce the number of staff members onboard trains.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Rail-network operation, rolling-stock manufacturing, signaling-equipment manufacturing, public transport, aviation, logistics

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

New Standard for Wi-Fi Mesh Networks

Why is this topic significant?

Wi-Fi mesh networks can enable a variety of Internet of Things systems to connect through a single wireless network.

Description

Mesh networking is a form of network in which nodes interact nonhierarchically. Instead of each device's requiring an independent and direct connection to a router or other signal aggregator, devices such as sensors and actuators can also pass information from other devices in a dynamic and free-form manner, enabling wider-reaching coverage and the potential for more energy-efficient data transmission.

In May 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance, a nonprofit organization that certifies Wi-Fi-compatible products, announced a new standard for Wi-Fi mesh networking. The new standard, EasyMesh, does not implement all the benefits of a mesh network, which would require every device on a local network to serve as a repeater. Rather, EasyMesh enables a mesh of fixed, powered repeater nodes to extend the range of a Wi-Fi router. This arrangement enables devices that are too far away from a router to connect directly to the repeater node, which then passes data back to the main router.

A number of network-equipment manufacturers offer some form of Wi-Fi mesh networking through branded range-extension devices. The EasyMesh standard differs in that it enables users to connect additional access points to a Wi-Fi network even when the additional access-point devices are not from the same manufacturer as that of the user's Wi-Fi router.

Implications

Wi-Fi is a widespread and well-known standard of wireless communication, and a large number of Wi-Fi-compatible devices are available for a wide range of applications. Crucially, because Wi-Fi connectivity is a common feature for many IoT devices, large-area Wi-Fi networks can offer a common communication system for a range of systems. For example, a business can use a single Wi-Fi network to connect devices associated with predictive maintenance, inventory tracking, personnel management, process automation, and employee internet access through a single wireless system.

Wi-Fi repeater devices enable businesses to offer Wi-Fi connectivity over much larger areas than are possible with just a single router. For retail and other public-facing businesses, repeater devices can simplify the challenge of providing customer Wi-Fi access across a large site such as a university campus, airport, or shopping mall. Wi-Fi range extenders could also prove useful in industrial applications in which operations extend across a factory, port, or other large site.

One attractive factor of the EasyMesh standard is that it enables users to replace parts of a Wi-Fi mesh network piecemeal, which could be desirable because of equipment obsolescence, breakdown, and superior products' coming to market. The standard also enables users to extend a network in an ad hoc fashion—for example, as part of a building extension or annexation.

Impacts/Disruptions

No current regulatory requirements exist for network-equipment manufacturers to make their Wi-Fi mesh-networking equipment EasyMesh compliant, and manufacturers may choose to continue the current approach that requires users to adopt only a single company's equipment for a multiple-access-point Wi-Fi network. Domestic Wi-Fi users may express little preference, but many businesses may be reluctant to commit to a single manufacturer for networking equipment, especially for smaller or less-well-established manufacturers.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Network-equipment manufacturing, IoT-service provision, predictive maintenance, IoT-device design and manufacture, employee monitoring

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: