The Future is Now: Robotics and Autonomous Systems Dissemination Event

The Science Museum was the site of a unique convergence of the past and future on 25 May 2017, when RSSB and RRUKA showcased the latest early-stage research on robotics at the prestigious venue that is home to George Stephenson’s iconic Rocket.

The Cranfield/Heriot-Watt team working on their Cab Front Cleaning prototype

The Cranfield/Heriot-Watt team work on their Cab Front Cleaning prototype

Three of the feasibility studies that were awarded funding as part of an RSSB competition, run in association with RRUKA, presented their findings on ‘Application of Robotics and Autonomous Systems to Rolling Stock Maintenance’. These academic-led projects explored blue-sky ideas for reducing maintenance time to improve capacity; reducing whole-life costs; and improving safety by enhancing the reliability of rolling stock inspections.


80 delegates from across the industry – including train operators, rolling stock leasing companies and operators, infrastructure managers, manufacturers and suppliers as well as DfT, BEIS and the Transport Systems Catapult – convened to find out more and share their insights and expertise.

Prof John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Adviser BEIS
Prof John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Adviser, BEIS

The projects themselves, and the discussion that has been generated, have contributed to a broader and deeper understanding of the transformational potential of robotics and autonomous systems as a key enabler towards realising the Rail Technical Strategy 2012’s vision of the railway of the future. Transforming this understanding into tangible benefits for the industry and its customers is the next challenge. RSSB and RRUKA are continuing their engagement with industry to develop and implement these ideas.


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Information on the projects is available below and on SPARK, where you can also find the slides from the event.

To see the Twitter coverage, including short videos, check out Storify



Cab Front Cleaning Robot – Cranfield University, Heriot-Watt University

The sides of trains can be cleaned by machines using rollers, but the complicated shape of cab fronts – with curved surfaces, pockets or concaves around the coupler and bumpers including wipers – means they are currently cleaned manually, which presents several health and safety risks.

This project designed and constructed a low-cost, robust and easy-to-use prototype that washes the cab front nose and body end panels between carriages. The cleaning head is mounted on a robot wrist with an orthogonal base designed so that the cleaning head applies a constant force as it moves across the surface of the cab.

A pre-commercial prototype could be deployed at a test site and used to factor in additional practical challenges, such as water proofing and various cleaning conditions.


Brunel logo

Robust Automated Servicing of passenger train fluids – Brunel University

This project developed an autonomous system for performing fluid servicing tasks including the topping-up of water, windscreen wash, sand and the emptying of effluent for passenger trains. Two approaches were identified, a cartesian design, with a hose dispensing rack and an articulator design with hose reels for various fluids.

The quality of fluid servicing will improve as a monitored automated system can deliver a reduction in out-of-service trains due to missed top-ups. The increase in servicing capacity helps ensure that the overall capacity on the network is maintained, helping to improve the efficiency of train operating companies and reduce operating costs.

Brunel University intends to design and build a proof-of-concept system before creating a full-scale working prototype, to be tested on a dedicated vehicle test platform. Once the prototype testing is complete, the system will be installed in a maintenance workshop and used to service a selection of in-service vehicles before working with industry to tender a commercial solution.



Feasibility of the use of autonomous robotic systems for wheelset reworking – University of Birmingham

This project looked at automating inspection techniques and the potential for 3D printing to add material back onto the surface of wheels to repair any damage. The point cloud scanning and path planning algorithms developed as part of the project could also work for a range of railway components.

These techniques could reduce the whole-life maintenance costs of trains by reducing the time required to perform inspection and maintenance activities – extending the interval between boogie overhauls and the overall life of wheelsets.

The next phase of research will focus on the development of emerging wheelset inspection technologies.


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