06/08/2021 – Transport / Autonomous / Train / Rail / Proxion / Finland / VTT

Autonomous train initiative enters test phase in Finland
Autonomous train initiative enters test phase in Finland

A ground-breaking autonomous train development project is entering its test phase in Finland – the goal being to double railway transport and create entirely new transportation services.


The initiative – led by Finnish firm Proxion in conjunction with around 20 other tech organisations – is developing an agile, low-emission transportation concept for large industrial enterprises. The project’s aim is to bring autonomous passenger traffic to the rails.

 

Led by the Finnish railway transport, logistics and infrastructure expert company Proxion, the autonomous train initiative received a funding decision in June and is moving on towards the pilot phase where the software and equipment of the autonomous train will be tested, simulated and test-driven. The project is a significant leap towards the transportation of the future, and Proxion is leading the way in developing the usability and agility of all rail transport.


“The strict environmental targets set by the EU are in favour of developing electric modes of transport – and railway transport is the most energy efficient way to transport goods by land,” noted Reijo Viinonen, Project Manager of Proxion’s autonomous train initiative. “The innovative development of rail transport is therefore in key position, as the goals are to develop transportation that is lower in emissions and to achieve better rail utilisation.” 


The piloting of Proxion’s autonomous train is set to commence later this year. The autonomous train is expected to be operational in 2023.


Reducing emissions, boosting rail safety


Autonomy in transportation is a global trend, yet while the development is well under way on roads, in the air and in maritime transport, progress on executing rail projects towards this end has proved slower.


The autonomous train unit under development in Finland is intended to be a low-emission and more cost-effective solution for short-distance industrial transport that is predominantly handled via road transport at present. 


An increasingly important feature of the train is safety. Technical Research Centre of Finland VTT, – the innovation partner of the development project – is involved in enabling safe automation on the rails. “It is important to ensure that the autonomous train operates reliably in all conditions and on a wide range of track connections,” said Pertti Peussa, Principal Scientist at VTT, describing the project as “a leap towards safer railway transport”. Mr Peussa went on to note examples of such advancement within the realm of safety: “Sensor interpretation technology for the train unit is being developed, as is combining a thermal camera and radar observations in order to be able to react correctly and in time to any obstacles or situations ahead.” 


The advantages of an autonomous train unit also include agility and the longevity of the infrastructure. In addition, it offers a solution to the challenge of driver availability (and affordability), given that an autonomous train runs independently without a driver.


High demand for autonomous rail transport


The first step of Proxion’s ambitious project is to pilot automatic railway traffic for freight transport in Finland – a service that can be commercialised and one that is in high demand internationally.


The objective of the pilot is initially to improve the operating conditions of the metal and wood processing industries – both of which are important to Finland’s economy. Within this context, the project is collaborating with steel company Outokumpu’s unit in Tornio and the forest industry company Stora Enso’s unit in Imatra.


Subsequently, the focus will be aimed more broadly on rail transport, where both goods and people are transported.


“The development of railway automation and ecosystems is currently a national interest for several European countries,” observed says Janne Hauta, Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications Ministerial Advisor specialised in rail automation. “All transportation will require AI-based data utilisation solutions, which are also at the heart of the autonomous train project. The whole project represents a bold, innovative pilot that creates cost-effective, dynamic new services that support business needs,” he added.


The co-innovation development project of the autonomous train is funded by public organisation Business Finland and the companies Proxion, VTT, Teräspyörä Oy and Electric Power Finland Oy. Proxion co-ordinates and is responsible for the project and the information systems. VTT produces for the project the sensor technology and software needed to observe the environment, Teraspyora Oy is responsible for fleet development and Electric Power Finland Oy for the digitisation of rail equipment.

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