UWB Rail-Guidance System to Go Global with UWB Alliance Consulting Service

Humatics' solution pinpoints trail location for the MTA in New York City and now may be expanded into Europe and Asia, with support from a new service that guides technology companies with standards and regulations worldwide.
Published: January 6, 2021

Micro-location technology company  Humatics started building an ultra-wideband (UWB) navigation system for trains in Brooklyn last year, in order to pinpoint train locations within a few centimeters. Having piloted the technology along five miles of track in Brooklyn for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the New York authority intends to adopt the system permanently in New York City. In the meantime, Humatics is in discussions with rail-service providers to expand its offering worldwide.

As Humatics plans future rollouts in Europe and Asia, the company is leveraging consulting services from standards organization  UWB Alliance to navigate the standards and regulations specific to different nations. The MTA began piloting the UWB technology in 2019 across several tracks throughout Brooklyn. The train-control solution was provided b y Siemens, using Humatics’ location-tracking UWB beacons, nodes and software to provide positional data. With the UWB system in place, New York City’s subway trains can be located, and that data can then be used to ensure that trains can run closer together more safely, while speeding up commutes.

Aaron Whittemore

In the meantime, with an eye toward global expansion, Humatics is among the first companies to leverage the UWB Alliance’s new consulting service, which offers international radio certification rules and regulations assistance, regulatory certification support, help in selecting frequency bands, and representation for standards development beyond UWB Alliance initiatives. By leveraging the services, says Aaron Whittemore, Humatics’ director of mobility products and strategy, “We can broaden our horizons. We’re focused on providing mission-critical mobility solutions to a global market, and the UWB Alliance service will help us get there.”

In 2019, MTA first set out to trial UWB technology to capture the location data required for its communication-based train-control system. The authority had been exploring UWB since 2016 to obtain location information regarding trains, so that it could provide not only safety positioning and routing information but also passenger-scheduling displays. Existing technologies were not being deployed fast enough, Whittemore explains, or were not as precise as they needed to be.

For the MTA, Whittemore says, “The main goal is to revolutionize their signaling system and modernize it.” The challenge for the UWB technology would be to offer a system that could provide the precise positions and locations of trains in harsh environments, such as in rail tunnels, with UWB receivers or beacons subject to sweltering heat, humidity, rain and ice. The pilot was launched in March 2019, with installation taking place in August, and testing commenced in October of that year.

For the pilot, Humatics teamed with train-control provider Siemens and NYCT personnel, who installed Humatics’ UWB beacons on approximately four miles of track throughout Brooklyn’s Canarsie Line, as well as an additional mile on the Jamaica Line, with cabled electricity. UWB nodes were attached to four trains that travel those rail lines so the company could determine whether the system could provide position data for safe train-control operations. Tests were also conducted that demonstrated the ability to control trains in a way similar to that carried out by existing train-signaling systems.

UWB enables a more modern signaling system for controlling high-capacity metro and rail systems, according to Joffrey Lauthier, Humatics’ sales director. Legacy systems have traditionally used train-to-wayside communication via Wi-Fi and radio communications. “That’s the principle for more modern driverless metro systems,” he explains. As a further modernizing alternative, Humatics’ system is providing more precise positioning of trains, he says, and it leverages that data for train-control purposes. The information can also provide information for passengers on platform displays, such as the current arrival time for a specific train. Additionally, train-control systems can leverage the data to monitor maintenance.

The pilot has covered three types of track: elevated, at grade (ground-level) and in tunnels. At the elevated tracks, beacons were most commonly installed on poles. In underground tunnels, the team installed beacons on columns or directly on concrete tunnel walls, approximately 5 feet above the track bed. At the grade level, beacons are installed on chain-link fencing, on poles and on concrete mediums. “We have very versatile mounting mechanisms,” Lauthier says. Altogether, Humatics installed 242 wired beacons, 212 of which are on the Canarsie line, while 30 are on the Jamaica line. The UWB nodes that communicate with the fixed beacons are installed on the four trains using the same UWB radios as those built into the beacons.

Joffrey Lauthier

The nodes are installed in sets under the fiberglass bonnet of the front and rear ends of each train. The nodes transmit their UWB signal, which is captured by the fixed beacons, and that data is forwarded to Humatics’ software, which computes the vehicle’s location and can trigger an appropriate response by Siemens’ train-control system, such as braking or accelerating. Humatics’ node provides a combination of UWB and acceleration measurements from the node’s built-in inertial measurement unit sensor, in order to provide precise position.

Before the pilot began, the MTA required that the UWB system be able to locate stationary trains to within 6 inches, as well as moving trains to within 1 foot. “Our flavor of UWB is extremely precise, within a few centimeters of precision,” Lauthier says, meaning it typically captures location plus or minus 5 centimeters (2 inches). Trains usually run every four or five minutes, reaching maximum speeds of 55 miles per hour in New York. Other areas, such as in Europe, may face a challenge in tracking trains moving at considerably higher speeds.

“The main aim of the pilot was to confirm that UWB can be used for safety-critical positioning,” Lauthier states, though rail companies could still utilize Wi-Fi for train-control data, and to provide connectivity for passengers. “You will have a combination of radio communication equipment in train tunnels to provide a range of services,” he says, while UWB offers another layer specifically for precise positioning.

The pilot has provided 1.7 million hours of cumulative operations, Whittemore reports. “The pilot is still going on,” he states, “and we’re using that data to refine and improve our algorithms.” The MTA began to review the results during the summer of 2020, Lauthier says, and it has decided to proceed with a rollout of UWB technology alongside other train-control modernizations.

Humatics was founded in 2015 by David Mindell, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The company, located in Waltham, Mass., offers full solutions including UWB radio and chip set designed and manufactured in the United States, integrated with a navigation system. Following the transit pilot’s success with Siemens, the company is now in conversations with other signaling providers that have taken an interest in the technology, Lauthier says.

Rail signaling is a global market, Lauthier explains, adding, “These large companies deliver everywhere in the world.” As planning began for rollouts in different parts of the world, the company (a member of the UWB Alliance) asked the organization how UWB standards and regulations are met in other countries. “That’s when we decided to partner with the UWB Alliance to answer these questions,” he recalls.

Tim Harrington

The service announcement is part of an effort on the part of the UWB Alliance to play a more proactive role in international UWB rulemaking and spectrum management, says Timothy Harrington, the UWB Alliance’s board chairman. The goal, he explains, is to develop strategies for ultra-wideband coexistence and to provide market research and data for its members. The group also focus on promoting interoperability based on international standards, which include the IEEE’s expanded UWB 802.15.4z standard (see  UWB Standard Opens Opportunity for Consumer-Based Products).

The service has generated requests from members like Humatics, Harrington says. Some U.S. companies are looking to expand into the European Union, he adds, while others may be looking into expansion into the United States or Asia. “We’ve had people in Europe who thoroughly understand how thing work in Europe but aren’t familiar with the FCC and Office of Engineering within the FCC,” he states. The Alliance’s leadership includes experts from around the world who can help companies with global expansion. “So we decided, given the group of people we’ve had join our staff, we have a great deal of experience.”

Traditionally, the UWB Alliance has provided only general information to its members, as well as pointing them in a direction in which they might learn more. “The new service is intended to go into a lot more depth with some hand-holding,” Harrington says. The service, available to members for a fee, requires membership at a gold level or above.

The Alliance reports that it has seen a trend related to UWB companies expanding their solutions and products offerings internationally. Until now, UWB technology has been used primarily for industrial and niche applications, Harrington explains. But with the 802.15.4z standard now finished, with smartphones adding UWB functionality, and with companies like  Lenovo building UWB into consumer products, he says, “It has been more enticing to get involved with UWB. We’ve hit the inflection point.”