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A Step in the right tracking direction

step tracking

Since 2009, Australian-based Step Global has made a name for itself as a leader in the supply of technology products for the tracking and monitoring of mobile assets. Now it’s aiming to spread its reach further into the rail industry.


A subterranean GNSS (global navigation satellite system) that regenerates satellite signals in real time, and is used to locate and track vehicles in road tunnels in Australia, could well soon be commonplace communication equipment for rail as well.

The key advantage of such a system is that any standard consumer GPS receiver, a smartphone using Google maps, or a dedicated tracking device, will be able to function as normal even though the receiver is underground. This proves invaluable in emergency situations, helping to locate people as well as providing directions for egress.

For a GPS receiver to locate itself, it has to have at least four good satellites in view, and be able to receive their navigation messages and ranging codes.

These provide the exact location of each satellite at that point in time and therefore the receiver can calculate its own position relative to the centre of the earth.

This process is difficult in tunnels and other underground locations, where the process of GNSS tracking is disrupted, as without satellite view, a receiver is unable to calculate its position.

But this can be avoided with the use of NoSky SatNav, a system that regenerates the satellite signals and enables GPS/GNSS receivers to calculate their latitude, longitude, and altitude within a subterranean area where there are no direct satellite signals.

Developed by Step Global, NoSky SatNav provides a regenerated signal that a receiver in a vehicle recognises as an actual satellite signal as if it had an open sky view.

The re-generated signals take into account the locations within the tunnel, achieved by using a series of radiating antennas in the tunnel ceiling. The signal from each of these antennas is relative to the precise position of each antenna.

The vehicle GNSS receiver will then calculate its position within the tunnel to the position of the radiating antenna.

Rail Express speaks to Step Global managing director David Lloyd about the solution and why GNSS is a benefit to the rail sector.

Lloyd said Step Global had full design authority, product supply and ongoing maintenance and service for the deployment of the NoSky SatNav GNSS system.

“It’s just one of the many GNSS solutions we have in our portfolio. We specialise in GNSS solutions for rail applications, enabling precise positioning, navigation, and optimised performance in railway systems,” he said.

“With a standard GPS receiver, whether it be on your smartphone, tablet or a dedicated vehicle receiver, even in rolling stock, we can regenerate the satellite signals from overhead into the tunnel and give a precise positioning in the tunnel.

“We’re working on a navigation project here in Australia at the moment. In terms of a real- world application, the technology is probably going to be one of the first in the world.

“It is actually for use in road tunnels, but it’s applicable also in rail tunnels. In fact, the Europeans are currently using a lot of GNSS positioning for rolling stock rather than just using the old style signalling technique, so it’s a growing area and one we are developing.

“We should have our first installation here probably about mid-next year going in.”

Lloyd said Step Global had been providing precision timing and asset management systems for almost two decades.

“Step Global sources, manufactures and sells GNSS signal distribution and validation products, solutions, and services. Our products add value on a daily basis to the successful operations of our customers around the world,” he said.

Lloyd said the use of GNSS in railway systems presented many advantages, in particular the monitoring of the train’s exact location, logistic information management, the possibility to map the transport infrastructure, and enhanced train signalling.

Benefits also include line speed enforcement, brake control for man lines, on-board speed monitoring and wayside hazard detection for regional lines, more accurate stop information for tramways, train separation alerts for freight, and preventative maintenance/railroad worker protection on infrastructure projects.

“The GNSS is the source for anything that requires accurate position, velocity, heading, and timing data. It is the prime source of time data for communications networks, signalling and control, mobile phone, digital broadcasting, electricity networks, and many other applications,” Lloyd said.

Step Global also offers advanced rail computers, cellular routers, and network appliances, designed specifically for rail applications.

“Our high-performance solutions enhance rail operations, enabling seamless control and efficient communication,” Lloyd said.

 

The 5G digi-tx64-r cellular router can be customised for both on-board heavy and light rail railways and metros.

 

AT A GLANCE

“Step Global has three distinct operational areas, all with a focus on the management of mobile assets,” Lloyd said.

The first, Step Global Products, focuses on the value-added resale of a range of quality products from globally recognised manufacturers.

Product families include not just GNSS receivers, antennas, signal equipment and simulators, but also mobile and infrastructure antennas, timing and synchronisation from embedded modules to PTP network time servers, telematics hardware and services and RFID solutions.

The company also has a dedicated team providing a wide range of services around the products, including applications and systems design support, training, repairs and maintenance and extended warranties.

The second, Step Global Solutions, provides engineered solutions focused on the real time management of mobile assets.

“This includes full system architecture design through module integration and software development,” Lloyd said.

“We specialise in developing both hardware peripherals and software applications.

“Our development technologies include wireless communications and networks, video capture and analytics, RFID, UHF and NFC, GNSS applications, AWS cloud services, and mobile apps.

“Our approach is to build on opportunities which aren’t standard.

“We don’t compete against simple, existing off-the-shelf products. We like to have an engineering challenge and we’ll apply ourselves and develop the architecture of the system and develop it.

“We use products from our main suppliers, put the system together with all the glue and then we wrap it all up in the software application.”

The third operational segment, Full System Offerings, consists of three products: Smart eDriver (an electronic work diary), AMS management system (location management software), and Asgard video system (video- based operational compliance and safety management and reporting).

LOOKING FORWARD

Lloyd said the company entered the rail sector after spotting the opportunities.

“We were distributing a range of cellular routers for a US company and then noticed it had a big range specifically designed for rail,” he said.

“And one of our other suppliers also had many products specific for rail.

“Because we handle a huge range of antennas, we had access to dedicated rail antennas. And we were already handling a lot of GNSS equipment.

“We thought rail has got to be a good target for us to go to, and now we’re making our name known.

“We aim to provide the right type of solution into the rail industry, even though we do understand that there’s a lot of standards to meet. There are many embedded suppliers already.

“There’s a lot of hurdles you need to jump. We understand that. But we think we’ve got a very strong and extensive product range and a competitive engineering capability to help us succeed.”

The company is certainly and literally on the right track. Users of the company’s rail products have included Metro Trains Melbourne, Siemens, MRD Rail Technologies and Pacific National, for tasks such as fault- finding, GNSS simulation, RFID applications and equipment testing.

“We’ve had several big clients, but it’s always been quite ad hoc, with companies coming to us looking for something and we’ll help,” Lloyd said.

“For some of the areas where we work in, there are not that many companies in Australia that have the same knowledge base as us.”

Step Global may have found the cracks in the in the doors, but is currently on the verge of pushing them open.

As its reputation grows, it’s certainly a Step in the right direction.