19 Sep 2023
by Eiji Yoshida

Bound for The Metaverse: Transforming Railway Operations

Guest blog from Eiji Yoshida, Senior Researcher at Hitachi Europe. Part of techUK's #SuperchargeUKTech Week 2023.

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The birth of the metaverse

The metaverse can be defined “as a virtual world where humans, as avatars, interact with each other in a three dimensional space”[1]   In the industrial context, this concept can be extended to transform the operations of manufacturing pnuclants, energy networks, railway systems, construction, mining  and other sectors. Whereas regular metaverses have traditionally been associated with virtual entertainment and social activities, the industrial metaverse refers to the virtual representation of information in real-world logistics, design, operations, maintenance and other industrial activities.

Value of the industrial metaverse

The industrial metaverse is a technology that is gaining attention for its wide range of benefits, such as increased efficiency, innovation and safety. We believe the real value of the industrial metaverse lies in its ability to "break down organisational, functional & hierarchical boundaries and promote non-linear use case growth". In other words, the Industrial Metaverse is a platform that encourages lively discussion and effective collaboration across organisational and functional boundaries; bringing together heterogenous systems and data; and enabling people at all levels, not just experts from different fields, to interpret data more intuitively according to their individual interests.

System of digital twins

On the other hand, there is also the concept of the digital twin. A digital twin links real-life physical objects with their associated digital information and processes. For example, the operating status of machines on a production line using sensor data; and the inventory status of spare parts can be reproduced in a virtual space as a digital twin, which can be monitored and controlled in near real-time from a remote location. Within the industrial metaverse, the digital twin is one component of the whole. The industrial metaverse can be defined as the comprehensive integration of multiple distributed digital twins, which are viewed as a system and generate new insights. In this sense, the industrial metaverse can be described as a 'system of digital twins'.

Interdependencies within the rail operating ecosystem

Today’s railways are highly heterogeneous and complex ecosystems; comprising multiple organisations and entities with devolved responsibilities. Rail infrastructure operators manage, maintain and develop the assets that make up the rail network. These include track, signalling, electrification, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, stations and trackside vegetation. In addition, many coaches, locomotives and freight wagons that run on the rails are owned by rolling stock leasing companies and leased to train operating companies and freight operating companies. The assets and players in the ecosystem are interdependent and function as a complex system.

Approach to the rail metaverse

Hitachi is involved in a wide range of social innovation projects, and Europe is a particularly important market for our rail business. Our concept of the industrial metaverse as applied to railways has three key layers as shown in Figure 1:

  1. An immersive, multisensory representation of the assets, events and behaviours of the railway system in a human-understandable format.
  2. A semantic model that represents the railway as an integrated system of digital twins that are connected to.
  3. The physical assets of the rail system, i.e. the trains, signalling systems, track and power infratsructures, etc.

We believe that the Industrial Metaverse will enable multi-agency stakeholders - not only railway operators, but also governments, local authorities, environmental and meteorological agencies and local residents - to work together to create sustainable, resilient and safe rail transport for all.

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Figure 1: System of digital twins at the heart of industrial metaverse for rail

Use cases in the railway

The following practical use cases emerge in the field of rail operations:

  • Asset Management: Continuous monitoring and predictive maintenance to minimize service disruption.
  • Operations Management: Data-driven decision support for cost management, resource allocation, service routing and customer experience.
  • Safety Management: Rapid response to incidents and emerging risks by making data available to all stakeholders in near real-time, facilitating rapid, effective and collaborative decision-making.
  • Infrastructure Planning: Streamlining the planning process through the use of  forecasting, simulation and modelling capabilities to plan and optimise asset investment and infrastructure upgrades.

Conclusion

The journey towards the metaverse has begun. The transformation of railway operations through the industrial metaverse heralds a new era of interconnectedness, innovation, and collaborative problem-solving. As the wheels of progress continue to turn, the industrial metaverse stands as a testament to human ingenuity, propelling us towards a future where cyber-physical boundaries are blurred, and new opportunities for innovation, exploration and transformation lead us to unexplored horizons.

[1] Cambridge English Dictionary

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Authors

Eiji Yoshida

Eiji Yoshida

Senior Researcher, Hitachi UK