Network Rail is one of the challenge providers in the ESMERA First Open Call. The call is closed and experiments are at the starting point of developing robotics solutions. We talked to Mark Gaddes from Network Rail´s R&D Group about his expectations, experiences and advise for future challenge givers.
The robotics project ESMERA, which is supported and funded by the European Commission and part of its Horizon 2020 programme, tries to boost robotics development in Europe. The project looks for real-life challenges in different industry sectors that companies are facing right now. ESMERA then aims at finding small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to solve these challenges by developing respective robotics solutions. Network Rail is one of the companies that handed in one of these real-life challenges. ESMERA talked to Mark Gaddes from Network Rail´s R&D Group.
What is the concrete problem you are facing?
We’re one of Britain’s biggest neighbours and there is a fine balance to be struck between clearing the vegetation we need to keep the line safe and encouraging lineside biodiversity as an asset. Proactive vegetation management clearance is essential to maintain a safe and reliable railway. Incidents caused by vegetation cause approximately 1 million delay minutes and costs the railway over £100m a year. In 2017, there were over 1,200 incidents where trees caused disruption to the network as a result of storms, rain and wind. Additionally, over 400 trains collided with fallen trees of large branches and many more instances of trees and branches blocking and closing lines.
What are your expectations of being part of ESMERA?
I am hoping that by interacting with the ESMERA consortium we can reach across Europe and find some novel ways to use robotic systems to manage vegetation on our network.
Is there an ideal outcome you can think of?
The ideal outcome for us would be to get to a position where we think any proposed solution can and is tested in an operational environment for our engineers to assess.
The project has just started, but do already have some first experiences of what it means to be part of that European project?
So far I have had good and clear communication from ESMERA personnel and the UK based facilitator R.U. Robots who has a good understanding of our needs.
Has Network Rail looked for solutions to the specific problem in the European market before? What was the response that you received? Do your competitors have similar needs?
We have made tentative approaches to the European market, but not to the extent that we have with the ESMERA consortium where we have issued a specific R&D challenge. As an arms length government body providing a service (responsibility for the management of Britain’s national rail infrastructure) we don’t have competitors, but there are similar organisations in other countries. This does of course offer opportunities for SMEs to supply their solution to those that manage other national rail infrastructures.
What is your opinion on the possible impact of a successful experiment by ESMERA. Would Network Rail be willing to adopt the solution in the near future?
The impact could deliver significant safety benefits as it could reduce injuries to people conducting manual inspections. Of course we would be willing to adopt the solution assuming all other matters can be satisfied such as contractural, risk, approvals etc.
ESMERA will have a second open call in 2019, when the project will again look for challenges from different industries. What would you recommend to companies who are maybe interested in handing in a real-life challenge?
I would say get involved, you have nothing to lose and you could open up a new market or find a new solution to your problem. This applies to challenge owners and potential solution providers.