BARCELONA: Bluetooth and iOS devices are being deployed across parts of London’s rail network operated MTR Crossrail to help inform and track staff in areas GPS cannot reach.
MTR Crossrail has been contracted by Transport for London (TfL) to provide services for the Crossrail parts of the capital’s underground railway system, due to go into full operation in 2019.
Mark Daniels, head of IT at MTR Crossrail, said the company needs to know where its staff are on the network to ensure they get the latest information on schedules, services and maintenance tasks.
“As part of TfL guidance terms we need to provide reliable audits; we have to audit all our stations, all our trains on a daily basis and feed that data back in real time,” he said, in a talk at the Gartner Symposium 2015 in Barcelona.
But this is easier said than done as when the Crossrail goes into full operation in around four years time the undergound segments will not be able to receive GPS signals, and while MTR deploys a private WiFi network for its staff, it cannot be easily used to pinpoint their location.
“We want to be able to tell where our staff are on the station not just at a station. We want to be able to tell them that if they are on platform two here’s what they should be doing, and for that [level of accuracy] GPS wouldn’t work anyway,” said Daniels.
The solution to this problem was to install a host of low powered, small and long-life iBeacons on trains and in stations. Currently, 500 are in place across the 12 TfL Rail outdoor stations, with a further 2,500 set to be rolled out to all MTR Crossrail stations over the next four years.
Created in partnership with MTR Crossrail by Mubaloo Innovation Lab, this is the first deployment of its kind for the rail industry, with Bluetooth beacons solely being used for employees, rather than passenger directly.
The Bluetooth beacons are able to beam a simple identification number to MTR Crossrail staff carrying company-issued iPads and iPhones. These numbers then trigger custom actions on apps such as Driver Advisory, which gives tube drivers information on their route and counts down the time to their scheduled stops.
“With the beacon system we’re looking at targeting staff with information that’s relevant to them; it cuts down the amount of information they are getting and basically makes their life easier,” said Daniels.
As MTR’s apps also record when staff come within range of iBeacons, the location of workers can be recorded. Used in conjunction with MTR’s Spotlight Audit app for recording auditing and maintenance checks on equipment such as ticket machines, the company can see if staff have visited the area they are scheduled to, as well as provide them with real-time and up-to-date information on the task they are required to carry out.
“This allows us to see where our staff are, and also feed them information via applications using proximity services,” Daniels explained.
For safety reasons, drivers’ tablets and smartphones are severely limited in what they can do. When the train is moving the devices are locked down, only displaying target travel time.
As iBeacons only broadcast a number and nothing that could be deemed sensitive, they are very unlikely to be hacked so could be opened up to third-parties, Daniels said.
“Once the applications are there and the beacons are in place anybody can use them at no cost to us, as it doesn’t matter if a 1,000 people or one person connect to it, the battery life is consistent as it’s just sending out a signal,” he said. “The feedback we’re getting from other vendors is they want to use that as well.”
Daniels said MTR has ambitions to use the system for messaging apps to track customers travelling from station to station and provide them with travel information, and potentially use beacon technology to replace ticketing.
Through customer tracking Daniels said the system could also be used to see when customers are being delayed and automate the process of refunding them for late services, something the current refund process does not easily facilitate.
He also said the iBeacons could be used by other companies, for instance, coffee shops could use the system in conjunction with their own apps to trigger discount codes or notifications to travellers with the software on their mobile devices.
The use of Bluetooth and iBeacon technology is nothing technically revolutionary. But it is an example of CIOs adopting a bimodal IT model, whereby core systems are kept on established infrastructure and new ones are developed in parallel to prevent operational disruption yet enable innovation.
This is something Gartner has been championing throughout its symposium, and can be seen in how British Gas is using smart machines and open source to add a layer of innovation to its business.