Precision Navigation Improves Performance in the New York City Subways


Nothing illustrates the benefits of precision navigation better than the New York City subway system — colloquially known as the MTA. More than a century old, the subway system is on the verge of collapse under multiple burdens, including mismanagement, increased ridership, and underinvestment in infrastructure. At more than a billion dollars per mile, building a new track is mostly out of reach.  The MTA has estimated that replacing its signaling system could take fifty to a hundred years!

See the brief video below from The New York Times for an entertaining breakdown of how the MTA’s current signaling system controls when and where trains move on the track.

Under a state of emergency, the MTA issued a “Genius Transit Challenge” to any company or person who could come up with inexpensive solutions with immediate applications. Nearly five hundred applied; last month, after a series of trials, the MTA selected eight winners, including four in the “Signaling” category; of those, two use Humatics technology, as proposed by our customer and partner Metrom Rail.

Humatics believes that precision location is the key to future human collaboration with all kinds of manned and autonomous vehicles, and we are pioneering centimeter- and millimeter-scale microlocation technology to enable more fluid interactions between people, machines, and infrastructure in the connected world. For applications like railways, we make small, highly specialized radios that employ exotic, broadband RF signals to measure point-to-point distances over thousands of feet with centimeter-scale precision, in some pretty tough places. Many of our customers use these radios as part of the larger navigation systems that we provide.

Metrom built our technology into an innovative solution based on straight distance measurement. They’ve been deploying this solution for years with a continental railway to improve the safety of maintenance vehicles on the track. When an oncoming train detects a maintenance crew, it tells the engineer the number and location of the workers, and which ones have acknowledged the oncoming train. Metrom has been piloting similar systems with the MBTA in Boston.

Metrom’s solution for the New York City subway is similar. A small number of fixed beacons are placed alongside the subway track. Metrom uses a “train-centric” design, so as each train travels down its track, it talks to these beacons many times per second to measure its position with centimeter-scale precision — out to thousands of feet. This technology provides precise, real-time information about the position of the trains. When incorporated into the MTA’s signaling system, it will enable more trains to travel along the same tracks at the same time — carrying more riders at rush hour without building new subway lines. It will also equip maintenance workers with the same successful collision avoidance technology Metrom has deployed elsewhere. Using access points in the subway stations, all of the data is piped into the cloud in real-time, too, so the analytics of actual subway positions will enable further optimization.

Smart cities - railways (thicker lines)

Metrom and Humatics will now instrument the next stage of trials. After that, we’re hoping to wire the full 600 miles of the MTA, at a fraction of the cost of traditional railway signaling. A recent report from the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany found that the core signaling technology used by Metrom has promise as a technically-effective and cost-saving alternative to existing signaling technologies. Rather than spending 50 years and billions of dollars, Humatics and Metrom’s solution can upgrade the entire MTA with inexpensive, scalable technology. “The implementation can be done much faster than MTA’s current plan for signaling deployment,” says the MTA, who “has the ability to begin installation immediately.”

For rush-hour subway riders in New York, precision equals performance. Knowing where you are, with Humatics precision sensors, allows us all to get more done, safely. Locate, navigate, collaborate.