TrackInspector – Using the iPhone to track railroad defects

Over a glass of wine and cigar with a friend who works in the railroad industry, we began to talk about the technology in use to monitor the health of railways and bridges. I was truly amazed at the politics on maintaining these bridges, how fragile these communication channels are and how critical they are in maintaining the energy supply to major cities within the US. (more on this in a later post)

According to a recent Reuters article here, almost half of the electricity generated in the United States is supplied by coal-fired plants. These coal fields are found in specific coal regions within the US. Once the coal is mined the facility can negotiate a transport rate if there are competing railroad they can use.

Enter the FRA (Federal Railway Administration):

The purpose of FRA is to promulgate and enforce rail safety regulations, administer railroad assistance programs, conduct research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail transportation policy, provide for the rehabilitation of Northeast Corridor rail passenger service, and consolidate government support of rail transportation activities.[2]

Currently railroads are in their majority inspected manually on a fixed schedule, meaning that someone actually goes out and either inspects with the assistance of equipment or visually.

Equipment assisted inspections are performed by a variety of methods:

A list of methods used to detect flaws in rails:

These techniques can be used in a variety of different ways:

The probes and transducers can be utilized on a “walking stick”, on a hand pushed trolley, or in a hand held setup. These devices are used when small sections of track are to be inspected or when a precise location is desired. Many times these detail oriented inspection devices follow up on indications made by a rail inspection cars or HiRail trucks. Handheld inspection devices are very useful for this when the track is used heavily, because they can be removed relatively easy. However, they are considered very slow and tedious, when there are thousands of miles of track that need inspection.

My interest level rose when we talked about the current handheld inspection devices being used and how the iPhone could add an enormous amount of value to this market.

Today a handheld device is used to record the fault and subsequently docked with a Windows PC, in order to sync the data recorded with a centralized system where photographic evidence can be later attached.

The Federal Railway Administration Track Safety Standards determine how and what data needs to be collected to perform inspections, which got me thinking on the iPhone hardware capabilities and getting a proof-of-concept out. Later came the design and architecture of the TrackInspector iPhone app.

The iPhone application allows the inspector to enter GPS-assisted track location being inspected, defects found during the inspection including a photograph and any remedial action taken. The inspection is immediately time-stamped and transmitted over the cellular network (GSM) or Wi-Fi, to a database server where the data can be retrieved securely and on-demand from anywhere in the world using a browser like any other website. The secure server allows centrally archiving, analyzing and reviewing all inspections as well as visualizing trends in the infrastructure.

Something I am sure Railway companies like BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) or Union Pacific would be interested in.

More Details:

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Cloud Home Security

For a while I have been wanting to do a brain dump of ideas I have had onto my blog and finally I have the will to make it happen. Many of the ideas I still think would make great businesses but for one reason or another I just didn’t execute them.


So I started playing around with the idea of revolutionizing the Home Security industry. This has been a market that has remained pretty much unchanged for a long time. A monitored burglar alarm service that relies on the police as first responders, business model which has put them at odds with law enforcement due to the high incidence of false positives.


This industry has had monopolistic tendencies for decades culminating this year in the acquisition of Brink’s Home Security (Broadview Security) by ADT Security Services bringing together the #1 and #2 companies in the US. Despite residential security services being just one of the many markets these companies provide services in, it is definitely the most financially attractive. For years these companies remain in control by forcing competitors out of business by lowering prices below cost.


The business model with a change here or there is basically moving into high-growth areas having a recurring service revenue.


What caught my attention is that despite advances in technology these companies still rely in their old infrastructure. Yes there are more advanced sensors including passive infrared,  ultrasonic, microwave, photo-electric, smoke, heat, etc and cameras but what was interesting is that for the most part when the alarm goes off a call is made to the monitoring service using a land line and reporting data gathered from these sensors to give the call center some data to act on after a call is made to the home.


This is were I think there is an astronomic potential. The value of the data gathered by these sensors would be a gold mine allowing the monitoring service and basic sensors to be provided for FREE and a premium charged for more advanced sensors and surveillance via cameras. A highly sophisticated and integrated system reducing the number of false positives. The system would of course go beyond security monitoring and merge with home automation, and home health monitoring. In order for the system to scale the intelligence in the homes (home security panel) would need to move to the cloud and communicate with a hub inside the home interfacing with multiple sensors, telephones, sprinkler system, entertainment system, electrical system (smart meter), appliances, air conditioning, water heater, and use of home areas by means of “mood” sensors.


Sources of income for the business would be advertising, cross-selling smart devices from manufactures, upgrades to premium plans, subscription to additional services such a health monitoring, and selling the raw data collected and even selling the data after qualifying it. Imagine being able to provide bulb companies burn-out rates, provide household advice on their energy uses and how to improve them, water usage and patterns, target marketing based on social status which could easily be determined by energy usage patterns, and mining migrating patterns within the home.


The Reality Mining Project was a social experiment conducted by MIT in which hundreds of hours of proximity data were collected by tracking mobile phones over a period of 9 months. Researchers created algorithms that could predict a person’s next actions accurately over 85% of the time. The program also determined social status and relationships as well as create a list of their friends and acquaintances and be right 90% of the time.


There is no doubt that this idea would have privacy advocates up in arms but in a world that is highly connected and the boundaries between public and private blur, it becomes a feasible business as long as there is not personal identifiable data.


Attached is a deck on the concept.

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Nortel Files for Bankruptcy

Unfortunately Nortel was unable to do what it needed to do to stay in business and has filed for bankruptcy, as I noted in a post 4 months ago. Nortel Struggles Continue.

The century-old company, North America’s biggest maker of phone gear and worth about $250 billion at its peak in 2000, fell victim to reduced spending by customers such as Verizon Communications Inc. and competition from Cisco Systems Inc. The company made the filing a day before a $107 million interest payment was due and was granted protection in Ontario Superior Court today.

Chief Executive Officer Mike Zafirovski came to the company in 2005 tasked with turning around a business weighed down by a $3.2 billion accounting fraud and ensuing customer losses. Instead, Nortel has lost almost $7 billion since he took over as the company’s competitive position deteriorated further.

“Nortel must be put on a sound financial footing once and for all,” said Zafirovski, who insisted the company will continue to meet the needs of its existing customers.

The future survival of Nortel, however, is far from certain. Companies that exit the bankruptcy process often emerge in smaller form and are frequently acquired in part or whole by larger suitors looking for a good deal.
“Nortel still has valuable assets,” said analyst Ronald Gruia of the market-research firm Frost & Sullivan. “They are probably going to wait until they have their house in order before they do a disposal.”
Even if the company remains independent, Nortel is unlikely to recapture any semblance of its glory days. The networking industry, jolted earlier this decade by the rise of low-cost Asian vendors, is intensely competitive. What’s more, the phone industry has undergone massive consolidation, giving the few remaining carriers greater leverage over their suppliers.



Nortel Struggles Continue

Nortel stocks have plummeted after they annouced lower than expected sales for 2008.

It has seen its biggest declines since 1980 according to Jonathan Ratner article “Nortel faces tough timing as peers struggling too”.

“With softening demand and increased competition, Nortel may need to once again retool and refocus as it looks to find its position in a consolidating industry,” RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Sue told clients.

After spending three days with the folks at ATT at the 2008 FOCUS Users Group, I got Nortel’s marketing spill which was all centered about going Green.

I am all for minizing energy use and saving resources, but something is seriously wrong when thirty minutes into the conversation all I am getting as a potential client is not how good the product is, not how much better it is than its competitors offering, not the features and how they’ll make all the issues I deal with on a daily basis go away but rather how much I will save on my electricity bill.

Nortel needs to go back to the drawing board, focus on the basics, be better than everybody else and then market it.