Bluetooth Mesh Network in Tests for Rail Car Management

Published: January 3, 2024

Industrial Networks has prototyped its SMRTag beacons and anchors now being tested to capture real-time location data about where train cars

Railcars in Houston, Texas, are being tracked in real time with a new Internet of Things (IoT) solution using a combination of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and GPS.

The mesh network of BLE railcar tags and anchors is provided by Industrial Networks LLC (INet), along with software to manage the data. With that data, managers can view where, and in some cases how, each car is.

INet’s partnership with transportation solutions provider Bourque Logistics provides a single solution for automating data related to railcar inspection, switching, scheduling, loading and unloading, as well as shipment functions.

INet calls its latest product SMRTag; developed and announced in 2023 and set to release this spring, it allows users to view location data about cars and to integrate sensors for gathering and reporting events such as impact, pressure, loaded or empty status, and temperature. The technology helps railcar owners, and users, enhance the safety and condition of rail assets and their cargo, explains Jimmy Finster, INet’s CEO.

Tracking Rail Cars with AEI Tags

For two decades, INet has provided technology and software to companies that ship product by rail, including mobile and stationary RFID readers that capture transmissions from the automatic equipment identification (AEI) tags on the side of the rail car.

AEI tags are part of the American Association of Railroads (AAR) standard. The tags are attached to all U.S. rail cars, and transmit at 902 to 921 MHz RFID frequency with a unique ID that includes the car owner’s ID number.

The tags enable personnel with handheld readers, or fixed reader infrastructure, to gain wireless data about each car as it passes or is parked in a railyard. INet offers thousands of mobile and stationary readers that read those tags for rail shippers.

Enhancing the System with Real Time Data

In recent years, Finster said rail car owners and users have asked for more automation to help with what is a time-consuming manual process: not just identifying cars intermittently, but in real time pinpointing their location and sequence,as well as other details such as the proper closure of security seals.

Because INet already gathers car identification information from the field and manages it for customers, the company began looking at ways to enhance the data it has collected.

Globally, railroads are trying to increase safety and efficiency, Finster points out. So while the AEI tag helps users know that a rail car is in the railyard when it is read, if the car is moved, that event isn’t automatically captured.

“The location data is only as good as its last scan,” Finster says.

How it Works

Rail car managers wanted the ability to know when their cars move, with automatic updates to their inventory software. The SMRTag resulted from that request, INet officials said.

The SMRTags can be attached to the railcar’s side, permanently or temporarily with a magnet. Anchors are installed in the railroad ties around a railyard that capture transmissions from area railcar sensors, and forward that data to a server via INet’s SMRTMesh network.

Users then capture location data from the software for each tagged car on a map of the rail yard.

Each time a car moves, the new location—based on the mesh network—is updated and its new position on the rail yard map is updated in the software.

10 Year Battery Life

The devices in use are all battery-operated with typical  battery life of five to 10 years, the company reports.

If companies want to include other sensor data with the system, they can integrate additional sensors for events such as impact, pressure, or temperature using SMRTag’s open API.

With anchors deployed around a railyard, the mesh network could provide other applications as well, Finster says.

The company is investigating solutions such as beacon based ID badges or wristbands worn by rail yard personnel that would transmit to the anchors as well. In that way safety improvements could be made by ensuring rail cars are not moving in a way that puts a worker at risk (for instance, if the individual was working on the track).

Greater Intelligence in the Works

INet is looking past location for its use of sensors. The company is planning to provide sensors that could identify if the railcar’s security seal or hatch has been opened, at which time an alert could be sent via the SMRTag software.

Additionally, the system may be designed to offer mobile data as the trains transit between stations. When a train is in motion currently, the rail cars cannot be automatically located since they are not within range of RFID readers.

INet hopes to offer an INet Portal device—to be installed in the locomotive of a train—that serves as part of a mesh network of SMRTags on every car being pulled by that locomotive. In that way, the SMRTag data transmissions could hop from the back of the train to the anchor, providing sequential identification of each car.

The anchor unit would use GPS location data, and send information to the cloud via a cellular connection such as a private 5G network. That would be a relatively low cost solution since only the locomotive anchor would require connectivity to the cloud, while the SMRTags themselves only require a Bluetooth radio, Finster says.

The SMRTag is not intended to replace the passive RFID AEI tag says Finster, but will, for now, act as a way to capture a greater amount of data in addition to the existing AEI system in use for all railcars. The early version of the SMRTag technology thus far is being piloted in Houston rail facility  with 1320 railcars.

Bourque Logistics Partnership

The company has also partnered with Bourque Logistics to provide its SMRTag technology as part of Bourque’s Yardmaster solution.

Bourque Logistics offers software for industrial logistics as well. Already, Bourque’s YardMaster shipment operations application, coupled with INet AEI systems, are deployed at about 230 North American rail facilities for inspection, switching, scheduling, loading and unloading, and shipment functions.

“We call ourselves two companies with one solution for rail shippers,” Finster says.

Key Takeaways:
  • BLE based solution from Industrial Networks LLC delivers real-time data about the location or status of railcars on a digital map.
  • The SMRTag solution from Industrial Networks is being tested at a Houston based railyard, while it will be commercially available next year.