April 24, 2013

Rail track inspection invention receives 2nd patent

Two Marshall University professors received a second patent for an invention they say will make inspection of railroad tracks safer, more accurate and less expensive than current methods.

Engineering professors Dr. Richard Begley and Dr. Tony Szwilski recently were notified that their Canadian patent application has been approved. It is the first Canadian patent awarded for an invention developed at West Virginia-based Marshall. They were awarded a U.S. patent last year.

Their system, which uses a combination of GPS devices, cameras and ground penetrating radar to measure track wear and other problems, has taken more than 10 years to develop.

Currently, they say, track inspectors have to rely largely on a limited number of multi-million dollar inspection machines that are only available to inspect the tracks a few times a year. These inspections are used in combination with bi-weekly visual observations, which must be obtained by foot in some cases.

“Track inspection the way it's done today is a highly specialized skill. It is labor intensive and very physically demanding. It can also be quite dangerous," said Begley.

The researchers say the invention is intended to complement the visual inspections and should help inspectors identify problems faster.

Their device uses basic "off-the-shelf" components wired together and mounted on a mobile platform that fits snugly on the rail. The platform is attached to a sports utility vehicle or rail bike adapted to run on the tracks.

Although the components are readily available, the inventors are quick to point out that the GPS system in their device is a specialized type, not the typical navigation system found on mobile phones or in passenger vehicles.

"Otherwise, we used readily available equipment to build the system," Begley added. "That makes it a relatively affordable option, so we're pretty excited about the possibilities."

Begley and Szwilski used federal and state funding to produce a prototype of the device, which they used for field testing in cooperation with the railroad industry. Although the system was designed specifically to monitor railroad tracks from the vehicle to which it is attached, the inventors say there may also be applications for the technology to be mounted directly onto railcars and other platforms.

"We're encouraged because this technological innovation has been industry 'pulled' by three major railroad companies keenly interested in applying this technology to address their specific needs,” said Szwilski. “We think there's a market."

He and Begley are now working with Marshall's Technology Transfer Office to identify companies that might be interested in commercializing the technology.

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