Taking Data Networks on the Road

by Barbara Schmitz, MEN Mikro Elektronik

With as much talk as there is about the Internet of Things, and how much can be done in the digital world, there is still an element to real-world operations that requires physically moving things from point A to point B. You can’t send a freight load of imported automobiles from our nation’s ports to car dealerships via Ethernet…yet.

But the Internet of Things is still helping to move things along in this physical world, requiring a shift in thinking about how powerful data networks are making their way into industries traditionally considered “lower tech,” such as transportation, construction and agriculture. Who would have thought that an 18-wheeler, an underground mining machine, or a commuter train would be part of an interconnected global network?

Historically, these industries have not used much technology, but they are under the same cost scrutiny and time-to-market constraints as any other business entity looking to optimize operational efficiency within a set budget.

The Road to Efficiency

Businesses that employ a mobile workforce are tasked with a unique situation—most of the fleet operators are working remotely as well as independently with external, uncontrollable factors, such as traffic and weather that impact productivity. There is an inherent lack of control and oversight from the headquarters, so in the past managing certain operational parameters has been challenging.

But once embedded technologies began shrinking enough to be used on vehicles, and then became smart enough to be connected remotely via wireless methods, an evolution began. Businesses realized that through proper fleet management, certain aspects of their business could be optimized, whereas previously the main office staff had no connection to what was happening on the road.

Three key areas where embedded computing is lending a hand include revenue generation through operational efficiencies and reducing risks by way of better on-road management of vehicle repair and fuel costs. In addition, it makes for increased communication resulting in better transparency with third parties, such as passengers, customers or other vehicles on the road.

Not only do today’s fleet management operations connect a driver with the main office, but vehicles can communicate with one another, with back-end computing systems and with other agencies or systems, depending on the nature of information being communicated.

Modern commercial vehicles, like buses, coaches and trucks as well as off-highway vehicles found in construction, farming and mining, have functions controlled directly by computer systems that need to communicate with the outside world (Figure 1).

Figure 1
Today’s on-road vehicles incorporate advanced computing across several different platforms.

These mobile environments are harsh, so the computers must be robust with small footprints to fit into narrow, space-constrained locations. Reliable transmission in a fast-moving means of transportation is considerably more difficult than in a stationary or slow-moving vehicle. However, improved technology in embedded computing continues to gain ground, providing optimal solutions for efficient transportation management.

Rugged computing systems offer the best combination of form, fit and function to ensure proper fail-safe operations, with mission-critical computers supporting safe driving techniques, fleet oversight and vehicle maintenance, for example.

A True Information Highway

Wireless technologies typically networked by fieldbuses like CAN bus are now commonly used in the control computers within these vehicles to perform vital functions. Communication computers are mostly based on standard Ethernet, while the external link can be connected using one of many different wireless standards including GSM, GPRS, LTE and WLAN, to name a few.

Dynamic information systems are providing today’s connected fleet with information on the current traffic or weather conditions for better operations and allowing for fast, effective rerouting. And Internet access points required to transmit the data along can be easily integrated into these advanced computing systems, keeping the main office up to speed on a vehicle’s status for on-the-fly modifications to scheduling.

Hauling a Different Kind of Cargo

Any mobile vehicle is faced with space constraints, and with more functionality being pushed into each vehicle, highly reliable systems that can most efficiently utilize this space are definitely in high demand.

A computing trend increasingly being used in transportation and fleet management environments is rugged, modular box computers. This concept allows a dense computing system to be tailored to a specific application and then enclosed in a rugged housing to withstand the rigors of a mobile environment. Not only can the electronics be customized, but the housing dimensions are adaptable enough to enable a precise fit into the compact areas of virtually any vehicle application. In addition, these environments typically mandate fanless conductive-cooling within the given application, which the box computer concept can accommodate through its design elements.

From small units with 3.5” displays up to computers with 10.4” screens or larger, box computers are providing a variety of transportation applications with advanced connectivity not seen in this area before. Because a dense set of electronics can be designed into a sealed, rugged enclosure, fleet managers are able to take advantage of the latest in embedded computing functionality.

These computing solutions easily handle the vast amount of information available on 3G, and even 4G, data networks, enabling on-road access to real-time traffic information so trucks can be rerouted to stay on schedule or to precise GPS location providing an accurate delivery time to a waiting customer.

Because the components and functionality of these box computers are contained within a sealed housing, the unit needs to perform reliably in not only rugged environments, but over long periods of time as well. These pre-integrated systems are designed to be put in place and operate effectively. The time and effort spent getting the system up and running is of no use if it constantly needs maintenance, especially when that system is on a vehicle in transit.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

A box computer is configurable and can be tailored to almost any application in the transportation, construction or agriculture markets as well as to any required standards in each industry. A box PC for the rail market, for example, can be equipped with rugged M12 connectors and a power supply compliant to the EN 50155 standard. For utility vehicles, box PCs can be certified according to ISO 7637-2 (E-mark) and come with an automotive power supply unit.

Some fleet management operations are taking this newfound freedom of technology one step further. An increasing number of mass transit vehicles are being equipped with driverless systems to optimize travel speeds and frequency, and lower energy consumption.

Automatic train operation (ATO) systems in the railway industry, for example, are typically based on modular systems because they control a multitude of functions such as status data continuously sent to the control center, or the capture of data from the wayside sensors, while communicating with wayside equipment (Figure 2).

Figure 2
As access to data across vehicle networks increases, more functions are being controlled remotely, from simple vehicle diagnostics to fully automated driverless systems.

In one driverless underground application, up to 500 mobile and stationary control and management systems are needed to monitor the train on a line. The control and monitoring system provides a response channel that allows the permanent transmission of status data from the vehicles back to the control center. Reliable wireless communication is key to system operation, so the electronics need to function under extreme temperature and operational conditions.

Aboveground driverless buses are quickly being implemented through box computing solutions, as well. And with the speed and direction of a bus being controlled via electronics, high safety levels are required, so the system will operate effectively and ensure safe passenger transit. This is achieved by housing more than one single board computer in a system to ensure redundancy and continued operation if a failure were to occur. Again, the highly dense box PC concept enables this level of functionality to be cost-effectively incorporated into an enclosed computing system.

The box computer concept from MEN Micro, for example, is simple and versatile—take a CPU board equipped with an AMD or Intel processor that fits the application, combine it with an I/O board featuring the connectors needed, then wrap it into a rugged fanless housing adaptable to the vehicle’s space requirements.

Keep on Truckin’

The ability to easily adapt the computing system as well as the housing leads to a cost-effective method for implementing the latest technologies in modern fleet management environments. Once hooked up via wireless methods, these systems can collect critical data and transmit it back to a central office to help with vehicle diagnostics as well as manage schedules more efficiently. Conversely, a main operator can send information to the entire fleet at any given moment for optimum—and total—fleet management.

Several different implementations have already been successfully deployed. In one instance, a fanless, SCADA-based automotive data logger is used to record and preprocess information in trucks and buses. Information from one, or several, vehicles is sent to the headquarters via the Universal Mobile Telecommunications System, indicating the vehicle’s status and position as well as when its next scheduled maintenance is due. Application-specific functions, such as CAN bus interfaces, are implemented as IP cores in the onboard FPGA.

Another application incorporates a compact design into a fully custom rugged 3.5” housing to provide universal control for a wide variety of commercial vehicles and mobile machines, including utility vehicles, mining trucks and construction machines. If required, this box PC can be customized with a display in sizes ranging from 7” to 15” with support for a range of interfaces including Ethernet, USB and UART as well as graphics and audio I/O.

In mass transportation, panel PCs used for driver desk systems can interface with the passengers as well as the main office, displaying content and video streams to keep all parties informed of schedules, upcoming stations or weather at a certain destination. In addition to providing outbound system information, these systems simultaneously keep the driver informed of critical operational tasks including fuel consumption and vehicle diagnostics.

Data Delivery for Specific Operations

Multiple data sources are now available between a central office and the vehicles in its network, so harnessing and processing all this data in also an important aspect when implementing a computing solution. What may be critical to the freight-related transportation industry that covers a wide geographic area may not hold true for what is important in a mass transit environment, which may be more regionally focused.

Through implementing different functionality within a modular structure, the flexible box computer provides a means to achieve a cost-effective solution designed specifically for each application.

In the case of a nationwide trucking operation, functionality within an on-vehicle system should include an interface to a satellite network to ensure widespread data transmissions. The ability to maintain data signals and accurate positioning through tunnels would be an advantage as well, and if used in a system internationally, the ability to interface with multiple global systems, such as GPS, GLONASS and the upcoming European Galileo system, would be of exceptional value to a fleet manager. A large display is probably not a priority (Figures 3).

However, a system used for a regional transportation operation that involves a large concentration of vehicles in a smaller geographic area will benefit from scalable box computers that can graphically display route alternatives should traffic or weather become factors that impact scheduling and delivery times. In many cases, because the control electronics in a box PC concept are directly attached to the back of the display, bigger screen sizes or other aspect ratios can be easily adjusted.

Box computing systems provide best-in-class, flexible computing solutions encased in a housing that not only fits into a space-constrained vehicle application, but that is designed to withstand significant environmental conditions and long-term transit situations, as well.

With modern, robust electronics making their way into an increasing number of mobile vehicles, highly dense box computing systems that can harness modern data networks will continue to be a driving force in fleet management efficiency.

MEN Micro
Blue Bell, PA.
(215) 542-9575