How Digital Twin Technology is Helping Build a Smart Railway System in Italy

AlmavivA helps Italy’s national train system modernize its IT to leverage cloud computing, Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and other data technologies that improve service and safety.

By Tom Mangan

By Tom Mangan May 20, 2020

A railroad is as real as it gets. You can’t virtualize tracks, ties and signals. Somebody has to build bridges, dig tunnels and supervise stations.

But railway technology is moving like a locomotive into the digital future. Big data technologies, cloud computing, georeferencing software and learning algorithms let computer engineers build interactive, three-dimensional models of railway infrastructure that can transform business operations and improve passenger safety.

This is already being tested in Italy, where these digital tools are proving to streamline processes, improve predictive maintenance and monitor the health of railway infrastructure, according to Maurizio Lombardi, chief operating officer of the Transportation and Logistics Business Unit at AlmavivA, one of Italy’s top system integrators.

“We're building a digital infrastructure that will allow the train system to leverage what modern technologies have to offer,” said Lombardi.

It’s an impressive — and daunting — undertaking that requires developing an interactive digital twin of everything required to operate a nationwide rail service. Lombardi is using Nutanix software to operate a data system that processes and manages terabytes of information. He said the system must cooperate with regulators and military authorities, who have stringent demands for security and data governance.

Digital Twins in Italy’s Rail Network

Rail transportation is a major industry in Italy that impacts the daily lives of millions of people. In 2018, the national railway operator employed just under 83,000 people, earned approximately 12.1 billion euros in revenue and moved more than 2 million commuters per day, according to the most recent figures in the rail operator’s 2018 annual report.

Lombardi is helping a nationwide railway operator build and operate a digital twin of its rail infrastructure, which includes more than 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) of track that carries trains from the sunny Mediterranean in the south to the snowy Alps near Italy’s northern borders. The digital twin takes into account all infrastructure, including stations, tunnels, bridges, signals, switches, electrification hardware and IT systems that coordinate everything.

Lombardi said the digital twin uses sensors like cameras, GPS receivers and advanced learning algorithms to create an interactive 3D replica of the rail system. While conventional 3D models help designers build and implement complex systems, digital twins put advanced data tools to work to provide back-and-forth feedback between the twin and its real-world counterpart.

Machine learning algorithms in the digital twin help managers optimize and update their operations, according to Lombardi. Sensors throughout the system in places like switches, signals and stations create massive data feeds that learning algorithms analyze, becoming more accurate over time.

In the past couple of years, train cars carrying digital twin hardware have been showing up in railway stations across Italy. These train cars have a yellow box on each end and arrays of sensors and lights that illuminate structures like bridges, tunnels, electrification equipment and station awnings. Each car is labeled “Rail 3D Asset Digital Twin.” 

Lombardi said that data from these sources generates three-dimensional representations of the entire railway system.

“It’s like Street View on Google, but it’s much more sophisticated,” he said.

Optimizing Remotely and On-Site

An interactive digital replica of the railway system serves two kinds of people in particular: railway managers in the main control rooms who need to visualize remote infrastructure like stations and bridges, and remote staff in stations and repair crews working in far-flung sites scattered throughout Italy’s bustling cities and picturesque countryside.

In railway stations, the digital twin helps local staff prevent safety hazards and boost on-time performance.

“A station is, practically speaking, a city,” Lombardi said. “That is, it has an abundance of variables — people, machines, structures and processes — that must work in unison.”

Armed with a tablet computer, station personnel can see an info-packed 3D view of their environment that they can customize as needed. That lets them do repairs and maintenance much faster because they don’t have to consult with people in the main offices.  

“Simply using a tablet connected to the system will allow people to do this type of work very easily without making mistakes,” Lombardi said.

Moreover, the system’s predictive capability lets managers become proactive in preventing problems instead of reacting after an accident. That trims costs, improves efficiency and reduces the risk of costly mishaps.  

Getting the Core Technology Right  

Lombardi’s company is partnering with other top technology providers to implement the digital twin project. To pull it off, they need to consolidate data from all the infrastructure across disparate databases, technologies and data formats. Terabytes of data must be certified as accurate. 

“The data for all the critical applications needs to work with the infrastructure, from maintenance to diagnostics to normal circulation, to manage or prevent incidents,” Lombardi said.

It’s a rigorous and complicated undertaking, but Lombardi said the digital twin is proving to be quite effective. Processes that used to take 15 days now take about a week thanks to the streamlined access to accurate data, he said.

The core technology combines ArcGIS, the software for 3D visualization of geographical elements, with Oracle DB, Linux and Windows application servers, virtual desktop infrastructure and a data repository. ArcGIS uses still images and video to build a complete visual inventory of the railway infrastructure.  

The solution required a data lake with an optimum mix of power, capacity, economy and ease of use. Ultimately, the railway went with an NFS file share system, which ArcGIS supports, powered by Nutanix Files.

“Nutanix manages the full data-certification process,” Lombardi said.

“Technology has to be an enabler. In this case, Nutanix has been a real enabler to reduce lots of issues, including time to market, connected with this project — simplifying a very complex project and letting the customer get control of it.”

The Italian railway’s digital twin enables a reliable stream of accurate geographic data throughout the rail network. Technicians and managers alike have tools that help them get their work done sooner, which drives efficiency and nurtures the railway’s financial health. Geographic data also can enhance passenger services at each station.

Moreover, accurate, actionable data serves the greatest interest: getting passengers and freight to their destinations with less risk of unexpected harm or unnecessary delays.

Tom Mangan is a contributing writer. He is a veteran B2B technology writer and editor, specializing in cloud computing and digital transformation. Contact him on his website or LinkedIn.

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