International infrastructure group Balfour Beatty has inaugurated a Rail Innovation Centre at its facility in Derby on Thursday with a focus on enhancing efficiency and safety on the rail network through the use of data science, AI and robot testing.

The company will use the 450 m2 facility the company for the research, development and testing of digital innovations to help improve the reliability, cost efficiency and safety of the railway sector in the UK and overseas.

Robots and automation will be at the core of the newly-inaugurated centre, whose goal is to improve workers’ safety and data-gathering processes and cut down maintenance costs.

The main focus will be on safety inspection, with the centre aiming to decrease the need for technicians to be exposed to trackside risk but contemporarily increasing passenger safety by reducing defects. It will also work on cost and efficiency using data maps and enhanced technologies, as well as improve rail assets such as speed, tonnage, structure gauge and access.

Balfour Beatty’s new hub will employ over 150 technicians, engineers, data scientist and developers and will cooperate with its offices in York and Matlock.

Speaking at the launch event, Balfour Beatty director and general manager Neil Andrew explained that the centre will help meet new challenges the industry is facing, attempt to fill the gap between research and applied engineering, and develop a new generation of engineers.

Opening the centre, Balfour Beatty CEO for rail and utilities Mark Bullock said: “Digital technologies are rapidly changing the rail industry, bringing new efficiencies and presenting new opportunities. The Rail Innovation Centre is at the heart of Balfour Beatty’s technology offering with the specific purpose of driving efficiencies and safety across the rail network for those who work on the railway and ultimately the travelling public.”

Data analytics will be at the core of innovation at the hub. Engineers at the centre will also focus on using machine vision and machine learning systems to improve the resolution, consistency and reliability of data input.

Within this framework, Balfour Beatty presented its latest products and software, including TrueTrak, OmniVision, OmniSurveyor3D, OmniCapture3D, DataMap and AssetView. The centre will also apply robot testing in a bid to enable remote, unattended and high-speed testing of the rail infrastructure in a safe and controlled environment.

The company used the launch event to showcase some of the latest technologies and software products explored and developed at the centre, which were presented to visitors in four separate stands.

One of them featured Balfour Beatty’s data acquisition and testing section and focused on the development of an automated testing system – through robotic testing – and Aventra TrueTrak, an unattended measurement system.

The second stand was centred around the company’s range of Omnicom products to monitor the state of tracks without requiring human intervention.

Signalling asset reliability was at the core of the third stand where two graduate engineers presented their AssetView software with enhanced predictive tools – used for point condition monitoring – and LX Alert, a system that helps reduce costs of tracking level crossing conditions.

Lastly, Balfour Beatty used its fourth stand to explain the usefulness of data science to measure the current state of a rail, as well as for vehicle modelling and optimising infrastructure.

Balfour Beatty will work in cooperation with four graduates, five apprentices and three trainees across its platforms.

The company said the industry needs to transition into a world where fewer and fewer people are involved in track monitoring and maintenance while helping customers to travel safely.