For the managers of rail networks and the operators that run on them, having the ability to monitor the infrastructure that underpins the networks is vital. With that control, those working on the sprawling networks can detect faults and isolate them before they can potentially become a problem – bringing obvious safety improvements that can also help preserve the life cycle of critical, and often expensive, assets.
For the latest 5 Minutes With… we feature an individual dedicated to making asset management quick, reliable and more precise through the use of fiber optics. JJ Williams is chairman of the Fiber Optic Sensing Association, the US organisation that is dedicated to accelerating the use of this remarkable technology, and we caught up with him ahead of his talk at the Transport Security Congress in May.
Dave Songer (DS): Can you begin with telling me a little about infrastructure monitoring in a transport context what does it involve?
JJW: Fiber optic sensing technology converts cables installed alongside transport infrastructure, such as railroads or highways, into an array of thousands of sensors which can detect acoustics, temperature or strain signals by using optical sensing techniques. Using signal pattern recognition of this acoustic, temperature or strain data, fiber optic sensing systems can infer what is happening along an asset, with a near instantaneous response that gives high location accuracy. What this means is that infrastructure operators can get warnings of potential incidents, with a high accuracy of where these problems occur that leads to reduced operating risk, cost and increased infrastructure life and efficiency.
Detection examples include intruders on level-crossings; vandalised or cut power cables; or a problem with the infrastructure asset itself, such as structural failings or a landslide. Each fiber optic sensing system can typically monitor many kilometres of asset, which means it is a cost-effective sensor over long distance. Most systems can also use fiber optic cables that are already in place alongside assets as the sensor.
DS: Great. You were recently made chairman of the Fiber Optic Sensing Association (FOSA), congratulations for achieving that. What does the FOSA do, and what does your position there involve?
JJW: The FOSA is a non-profit organization created in Washington DC in 2017, with the mission of educating industry, government and the public on the benefits of fiber optic sensing. Through webinars, videos, white papers, public presentations and public policy advocacy, the organisation provides information on the use of fiber optic sensing to secure critical assets, enhance public safety and protect the environment. When the organization was founded, we created a structure with a board and committees for technology, public policy and economic benefits – having those really seems to foster collaboration between our members and strong outputs in our two main mission areas: awareness and education.
My role as chairman is to keep the drum beat of this structure going, having the right people from our membership thinking about or contributing to issues and projects that can have a real impact in our industry. The chairman also typically becomes a spokesperson for some of the association’s projects and outputs, in dialogue with industry, government and other institutions.
DS: What are the main challenges and opportunities in the field of fiber optic sensing?
JJW: Fiber optic sensing has been around for some time, yet broad awareness of the technology still needs development, as well as education on how the technology is deployed, what it can do, then how it benefits the user. This is typical of new technology and a growing industry’s maturity, and FOSA is a mechanism to expedite this maturity, through member collaboration and outreach.
The opportunities are vast, and exist in multiple industries and regions. We’re essentially talking about a whole category of technology; distributed or quasi-distributed sensors that can have an inherent benefit compared to point sensors in terms of cost and performance. Consider it in the oil and gas industries, for example – point sensors logging pressure or flow at point A or point B versus fiber optic sensing, which has thousands of sensing points all along an oil well or pipeline. In transport too, leveraging an existing fiber optic cable to track trains or rockfall in an otherwise ‘dark’ region, with a sensor every 10m over hundreds of kilometres, is a powerful capability. Fiber optic cables are inherently reliable and cheap over long distances too, with a minimal maintenance requirement that also provides a benefit compared to point sensors.
FOSA strongly believes that all major new infrastructure, such as railways, roads, bridges, tunnels, pipelines, facilities or borders, should include a conduit and fiber optic cable to future proof these expensive assets, so that they can leverage the benefits of this technology over decades. Moreover, we can utilise fiber optic sensing to make transportation systems safer and more environmentally friendly. These are key goals for FOSA members and something we feel very strongly about.
DS: Yes, the benefits are clear. What do you most like about working in this industry, and how has it changed since you began back in 2008?
JJW: The variety of the work. We get to understand and support the challenges of clients in different industries and different regions around the world. Also, the sheer scale of the projects we are involved in, which are some of the largest engineering projects undertaken in the world today. Despite our relatively small size as an industry, we can have a major impact on these projects from a safety and efficiency standpoint, which is very cool and what business and technology is all about: providing value. In terms of changes, I would say that the industry has matured, and the FOSA is a prime example of this change, rationalising what the key issues and opportunities are for the industries we serve and the industry working together to address them.
DS: Where do see the big changes coming over the next decade?
JJW: The fiber optic sensor manufacturers have performed a huge amount of R&D in the last 20 years, improving the performance of their laser interrogators, in terms of sensitivity to different signals and instrument reliability. I expect this to continue over the next decade, but I also predict that the major cable manufacturers are will ramp up their R&D efforts into sensing applications, producing sensing cables that will have a major impact. This will lead to improvements in existing applications, but will inevitably add new exciting services that this technology can support.
DS: With what you know now, would you offer your younger self any pre-career advice?
JJW: A tough question! I would say that in terms of education, despite not personally having a predisposition for the sciences, gaining a strong technical grounding is an excellent platform from which to build a career. I have learned a lot through experience and curiosity, but could have benefitted more from this initial platform in my career. Otherwise, I would just advise to keep an open mind and stay patient, something I hope I’ve managed to achieve.
DS: Thanks JJ!
To hear more about the positive impact that fiber optics is having on rail and also the work that FOSA has done to improve safety and reliability, JJ will be speaking at this year’s Transport Security Congress on May 14th-15th May in Washington D.C.
Visit the show website here to view the agenda and see the other guest speakers taking part.