"We have an innovation lab that is constantly looking at ways that we can enhance positioning technology for the customers that we're working with. We're constantly looking ahead to how the development and deployment of new technologies can be integrated by industries, but always with a focus on safety."
During SmartTransit LA 2019, I sat down with Piper Network's founder and CEO, Robert Hanczor, for a deep chat about the company's operations and philosophy. A 30-year software engineering veteran, Rob was involved in the development of mission critical systems, and his company is currently focused on modernising positioning technologies for rail operators and integrating them with train control systems. Read all about Rob's and Piper's latest efforts after the break, or click here to read the beginning of this 2-part interview.
Are there any noteworthy pilot programs currently going on with any operators?
We're now in the process of completing our third pilot using Ultra Wideband technology. The first was in 2017, when we did a pilot to determine the viability of the technology in the Times Square Shuttle for the MTA, and based upon the success of that program and the data we collected, we were invited to participate in a more rigorous pilot that took place in an area called the Culver Test Track in Brooklyn. That's also in New York City transit subway lines, and in that second test, the goal was to determine not only that we can get proper positioning, but also how successful can we be at taking that positioning information, calculating the trains distance along the path, and then handing that information off to an onboard CBTC controller.
That second pilot was done in conjunction with Thales Corporation, which is also the installer and maintainer of CBTC on the 7 Flushing Line in New York City. Following the second pilot, New York City transit teamed us up again with Thales and this third iteration of the project is looking at a much more rigorous approach as to how we can install Ultra Wideband from a program management standpoint, that involves deployment management and a very rigorous set of data collection.
We're going to collect several thousand hours of positioning information during this third pilot on the 7 Line, and then the goal would be to use that to make the safety case for using Ultra Wideband as part of the Fast Forward initiative that New York City transit has put in place for improving signalling throughout the network.
And throughout all those three pilots, what were the biggest challenges you guys faced and managed to overcome, and which ones you still have to get through?
That's a good question. So it started off as a viability discussion: "can we even use Ultra Wideband as a way to do accurate positioning?" And I think we solved that problem very quickly. I think there was always a belief that the technology would work, but then you have to evolve very quickly as you're going through the subsequent pilots to prove not only that the technology works, but how can Piper as a technology developer (and also as a system integrator) package that equipment up, make it available, install it, test it, and monitor it in a way that it becomes part of the living ecosystem of revenue trains as they're working in the system.
You seem to be focused in that general area, Manhattan, Brooklyn, and all that, what is the next step after this? Are you already looking into LA Metro, SoundTransit, Boston MBTA, etc?
Yes, especially now that we're proving out the technology, we're seeing much more interest from other transit systems in adopting the technology. I think it's reasonable to expect that they have all eyes on New York to see how the program is working, and that they're going to be very interested in the data that we collect to make the determination of how it fits into their own operations.
Any plans to breach international markets?
The world is full of opportunity. We believe that the US market has plenty of potential for us in the short term, and as we look to international markets, we're going to be very selective about the opportunities that we pursue.
And looking to the future, outside that specific pilot, what else is Piper working on that may be exciting?
We've got a lot of things that we're working on in our engineering and development team. In our headquarters in San Diego, we have an innovation lab that is constantly looking at ways that we can enhance positioning technology for the customers that we're working with. We're constantly looking ahead to how the development and deployment of new technologies can be integrated by industries, but always with a focus on safety. So whenever we're looking at either a new technology, a new application, or a new opportunity for deployment, we have to stop and ask ourselves: "how will this affect the safety case to ensure that the systems that we are installing can handle the critical, and oftentimes, vital requirements that the operators will have for us?"
And that's important, because companies like Piper can find their way amid a lot of these larger companies that are out there in the marketplace. For us, it's always about innovation of deployment.
You have less bureaucracy to deal with, so you can innovate faster.
Exactly. And it's also about how we help the operators get where they need to go faster -- anytime your customer is a transit system, your real customer are the riders, so you are intimately involved in the customer satisfaction that those riders are going to experience if they're going to be affected by the technology you install.
We're very confident that Piper's technology is going to accelerate all of the new ideas and implementations that's going to enhance signalling and change the way transit systems work. But as we're getting there, we need to ensure that we're thinking about ways to innovate the implementation and deployment of the technology in smart ways -- we need to get in, do our work and get out so that the transit systems can resume normal operations and not be affected by long and tedious implementation cycles.
What about expansion and aftermarket support? We hear a lot of complaints about companies hired to do something which move on to something else as soon as it is delivered.
It's a good question. We focus very keenly on logistics and implementation, and we equip all of our devices with sensors that report through various interfaces about the health of our system to the customer. We have a very clear view as to how the system is performing at any given moment of the day, remotely and on site.
Part of that comes with making sure that we're following along with the customer, so the contracts that we develop will always have a maintenance agreement. That's done to ensure that Piper's engineering expertise is always available to the customer to ensure that they're never in a situation where they have to guess at the best way to maintain and keep the system operating at its optimal efficiency.
What if a sudden breakthrough happens in your research and previous products could benefit from it? Do you approach operators about that?
We're always keeping our customers informed on where we believe the technology is moving, but in any situation where new technologies present themselves, you always have to go through a safety assessment process. It's difficult to think of a transit operator that's moving millions of people a day would be able to adopt a new technology overnight, regardless of how much promise that technology holds. It still has to be put through a very rigorous set of tests, pilot programs, and assessments and evaluations before they'll ever consider putting it into revenue service. So we believe that we can be eyes forward on new technology in informing our partners about what's coming, and work with them to improve decision making on where they should put their resources.
A question that we always like to ask everyone: what is your favourite journey in the world?
Interesting. I think that any journey that includes my family is the one that I want to be on. We're fortunate that we get to travel together and having being together as part of it and experiencing the sensory explosion of what it means to visit new cultures and new tastes and new people is always better when you can do with people you love.
What's the first trip that springs to mind when you think about that?
Click here to read part 1, where we talk about Piper's area of operations, their NYCT collaboration, and the way their tech works.
The first international trip we took was to Barcelona, and my children were younger then and they were fascinated by the change of culture -- it really gave them an appetite to want to explore more, so I think it's important to give your kids an opportunity to travel, But for us, there’s always a gentle reminder before we leave: we’re packing one bag, and we're taking public transportation.
To meet decision makers and experts like Rob and find out more about the biggest and most important transportation projects taking place in the US, join us at SmartTransit East: Boston on March 17-19th, where the world's top industry and decision makers reunite for a one-of-a-kind three day networking conference packed with insights, presentations, and workshops!