(Lenz Labs, three of the team pictured in the Higgs Centre for Innovation at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Credit: Lenz Labs)
“We’re sorry for the delay to your service, this has been caused by leaves on the line.”
Of course, this is the perennial heart sink announcement for many train commuters when it bellows loud from the platform speaker.
But high-tech start-up Lenz Labs, who recently joined the Higgs Business Incubation Centre (BIC) programme at the Higgs Centre for Innovation, is developing innovative new technology that could solve this long-standing problem.
We caught up with Hamish and Daniel, the company’s CEO and CTO, to find out more.
Who is the Lenz team?
“Team Lenz is: Hamish Geddes CEO, Daniel Carbonell CTO, Carolina Toczycka CCO, Gonzalo Gil R&D Engineer, as well as Cheng Hao Lim Electrical Engineer and Rafael Anderka Software Engineer.
“We started as a team of students at the University of Edinburgh, working together on the Hyperloop concept. Conceived by Elon Musk, Hyperloop is a proposed network of near-vacuum steel tubes to transport humans and cargo in magnetically levitating pods. We all worked really well together. Carolina focused on the commercial aspects and the rest of us did the technical development.
“Using our experience of developing tech for Hyperloop we realised that it could be applied to solving some of the biggest causes of delays in the current rail infrastructure.
“And that’s where our Traction Hub concept was born, with an ambition to bring the ageing railway networks into the 21st Century!”
That’s a big ambition. What problem(s) are you trying to solve?
“We want to help the rail market move towards smarter ways of tackling some of the biggest causes of delays and cancellations, things like water, ice and leaves on the line, which together create conditions similar to black ice on the roads.
“Every year there are over 200 ‘adhesion incidents’ caused by these conditions, reducing grip and increasing wheel slip, and the risk of derailment, as the driver loses control of the wheels on the track.
“In these adverse conditions, the tracks need to be cleaned. Maintenance teams use jet sprays to clear the mulch, or sand sprayers, similar to putting grit on a road. Scheduling in cleaning and reducing train speeds to mitigate for safety risks caused by these conditions all lead to delays and cancellations.
“By resolving this major contributor to passenger frustration, we think our tech could also be an enabler in improving public trust in rail companies too.”
Tell us more about your tech: Traction Hub
“Traction Hub is an engineering solution to magnetically counter slip and to stabilise a driver’s control of the train.
“An array of electromagnets are fitted, thereby improving adhesion between the wheels and the rail.
“These electromagnetic devices can be retro-fitted into wheels already in use on trains or they can be built into new designs.”
How far have you come, so far in your journey?
“Traction Hub is currently at prototype stage. Through a grant from the Department for Transport, we have been able to develop a prototype at a 1/5 the scale of a full-sized train. We are now testing the technology on a miniature railway track, before scaling up.
“We have been supported on our journey by Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Institute for Enterprise, and we have benefitted from the business incubator programmes offered through the Universities of Edinburgh and Heriot Watt.
“Hamish has also recently been awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship to help commercialise the work.”
How important is it for Lenz Labz to be located at the Higgs Centre for Innovation?
“We’re really excited about having achieved a place on the Higgs BIC, as it will give us access to state-of-the-art facilities that will enable us to fully test our tech and scale up our product to a full-sized train. We will be doing a range of tests, including pre-compliance testing and electromagnetic compatibility testing, as well as vibration testing in the labs.
“We are looking forward to being co-located with, and learning from, the other start-ups at The Higgs, many of whom are also using satellite data to drive their product innovations. Co-located on site too is the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), and we would like to tap into the expertise that the teams there have on small satellites.”
The Higgs Centre for Innovation is a collaboration between the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation, and the University of Edinburgh. It combines business incubation with expertise in world-class research in astronomy and world-class engineering in the design and build of the science instruments for the world’s major telescopes.
What is your ambition for your time on the Higgs BIC programme?
“There are in fact two sides to the Traction Hub product. The hardware solution, which is the electromagnetic devices fitted to wheels, and an analytics platform. The analytics platform uses satellite imagery to forecast conditions and advise drivers on where to use the product on the railways. Drivers therefore have greater control over braking and acceleration because they know that the devices are operational when a train is starting, stopping or when there are low adhesion conditions (such as ice, water, leaves on the line).
“By the time we graduate from the Higgs BIC programme, we would like to have scaled up to a full-sized train, and have a functioning and fully tested analytics platform. We will then be in a position to build with our ecosystem of stakeholders the trust in the product to drive implementation of the tech and the adoption of a new gold standard.”
Julian Dines, Head of Innovation, The Higgs Centre for Innovation, said: “We are really excited about supporting Lenz through the Higgs BIC programme. Our teams of engineers at UK ATC design and build instruments for the world’s most ambitious telescopes. Lenz will have access to the kind of engineering expertise for designing ruggedized, reliable systems for challenging environments, whether it be on the top of a 14,000ft mountain in Chile, in space, or in Lenz’s case, under a train! “Our world-class labs and clean rooms will be essential to them in testing their product and scaling it up. As well as the technical support, Lenz will also have tailored business support to help them with the commercial aspects of growing their company.”