New research could potentially lead to turnstile-free mass transit

Posted on April 30, 2018

Ultra-wideband tech. could lead to better tracking of trains and buses, and potentially eliminate the need for turnstiles, tickets or cards. Photo: University at Albany
Ultra-wideband tech. could lead to better tracking of trains and buses, and potentially eliminate the need for turnstiles, tickets or cards. Photo: University at Albany

Researchers with the University at Albany have taken the first steps toward possibly making turnstile-free subways a reality.

Led by Assistant Professor Hany Elgala, Ph.D., working with partners at the university's Parking and Mass Transit Services and Office of Facilities Management, the scientists studied the feasibility of applying ultra-wideband (UWB) technology to public transportation systems.

The group included those from: the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany (CTG at UAlbany) and the Signals & Networks Lab (SINE) within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

Their methods and results are available in the recently published report, "Intelligent Transportation based UWB Positioning and Connectivity: A Proof of Concept for Improving Public Transportation."

"UWB is a wireless radio system that uses a small amount of energy for simultaneous ranging, location tracking, andtransmission of large amounts of data over a wide range of frequency bandwidths," explained G. Brian Burke, managing director of CTG at UAlbany in the report. "For public transportation, UWB could lead to better tracking of trains and buses, and potentially eliminate the need for turnstiles, tickets or cards to deposit money or swipe for payment."

"Based on the obtained results, more investigations are needed to study how the technology performs in more real-world scenario and associated conditions," Elgala said. "We believe that the UWB technology has much more to offer for metropolitan public transportation including train-to-wayside communication and obstacle detection in front of trains."

This technology, if successfully implemented, could be a boon for the millions of Americans who rely on buses, trains, and subways. In 2017 alone, the American Public Transportation Association reported 10.1 billion trips were taken on public transportation.

According to the report, the team wanted to see if UWB could hit specific levels of accuracy, consistency, and resiliency required by public transportation authorities to ensure service quality, effectiveness, and safety. Specifically, they wanted to test determining the location of a train or bus ("ranging") and to see if they could find a sensor within a "crowd" ("localization") which would be used to pay for rides without traditional turnstiles.

Working with their on-campus partners, and with commercially available ultra-wideband devices, the researchers ran tests in UAlbany's tunnels and on outdoor campus roadways to evaluate environmental and other effects on the systems. Their experiments measured reliability and precision.

For ranging, the scientists tracked a bus, between two UWB nodes about a tenth of a mile apart and in line-of-sight of each other. In that scenario, researchers could track a bus within about four inches of the vehicle's actual location. For non-line-of-sight situations, with two UWB nodes about 28 yards apart, the precision was within 20 inches.

Inside the tunnel, with six UWB nodes, scientists could locate a sensor within two inches of its actual location during localization testing.

"The best way to think of it," Burke said of the report, "is as if you had a payment card in your pocket, but just walked right onto a bus and were charged automatically, instead of stopping to swipe the payment card."

"These are just the early steps toward a turnstile-less world," said Burke. "There are levels of consistency and precision that need to be met, not to mention the policies needed to manage this kind of technology — but the impact could be felt by millions of Americans who rely on public transportation."

To learn more about UWB technology as it pertains to public transportation, visit

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