In this interview, we talk to Mihai Baratoyo, a robotics and automation engineer at Pandrol, about robotics and machine learning in the rail industry.
Q: How do you see the role of robots in railways?
The emergence of robotics in manufacturing has created opportunities for companies in every sector to reduce operating costs, as well as provide safer, more reliable, and more efficient manufacturing processes.
Within the rail sector, there is a real opportunity for automation and robotics to solve the most repetitive, repetitive, dirty and dangerous tasks – both on track and in manufacturing facilities. The use of automated assembly is set to become increasingly influential in high-speed rail, with its own requirements for quality and accuracy.
Q: What problems do you think robots can solve?
Historically, robots have been used to help companies tackle issues related to repetitive, tedious, and dangerous tasks. In the railway industry, robots can be too
It was implemented to address a range of issues, including:
• Health and Safety – Recent studies have shown that most severe accidents occur while maintenance is on track. This is a real opportunity for robotics and automation to create a safer environment for railway employees.
• Aging workforce and recruitment challenges – There have been problems around staff shortages in the industry, with particular shortages in the UK as a result of Brexit.
• Track assembly manufacturing – Using standard manufacturing processes to build and assemble track off-site, in a more controlled factory environment, can reduce the time it takes to perform track assembly.
Q: Which area of the railway infrastructure do you expect to be the first to adopt robots?
Rail component suppliers have already implemented robots for a range of processes within their manufacturing facilities, including scrap-drawing, inspection, shaping, and baseplate pick-up and placement.
Due to health and safety issues on track and staff shortages, adoption of robots now appears set to increase rapidly for tasks on track, such as maintenance, inspection and welding.
Q: Do you feel reluctance to adopt robots from industry? If so why?
There is certainly hesitation regarding tasks on the right track. This is largely due to challenges posed by track accessibility and weather conditions – performing on-track maintenance in a railway department requires a tremendous amount of planning and skill. Automating this would be an interesting problem to solve.
Existing track layouts make it difficult to implement general industrial robotics as a turnkey solution. Most robots are designed for use inside a factory, where environmental conditions are known or at least predictable. On-track inspection or maintenance tasks require research and development to integrate known robots with existing train structures. Only by doing so will hybrid solutions suitable to perform outdoor tasks be developed, thus reducing operator exposure to high voltages and other path-related risks.
Q: Do you think it will be possible to make the leap to fully automated maintenance in the future?
Current technology does not allow robots or artificial intelligence to have the same sensory capabilities or intelligence as humans. However, it seems that progress in these areas will increase significantly in the coming years, bringing us closer to more independent solutions in the rail industry. For example, in the future, the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence will likely help us make more accurate predictions of downtime and plan ahead to mitigate the impact of bad things—although rail employees will still need to make more complex decisions.
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