Trains and drains

Jan. 1, 2011
The interiors of drains, train tunnels, and arteries are not so dissimilar, and designers of machine-vision systems should bring 3-D imaging to this frontier.
The interiors of drains, train tunnels, and arteries are not so dissimilar, and designers of machine-vision systems should bring 3-D imaging to this frontier

by Andy Wilson, editor
[email protected]

Have you ever been a passenger aboard a high-speed train traveling through a tunnel? If you have, you may have morbidly wondered what disastrous consequences would occur if the railway tunnel were blocked by some obstruction or—equally as bad—if the sides of the tunnel walls were aged and about to collapse.

I had such deep, dark thoughts on a recent trip to England where I boarded a train to visit family and friends in the sleepy town of Bedford. Of course, while traversing the tunnel, no such blockages prevented the train from reaching its final destination, thank goodness. Upon arriving at my brother’s house, however, I found that one of his appliances was suffering just this symptom. To be blunt, his toilet was blocked.

Fancying myself as a handyman, I immediately started plunging the said 50-year-old, double-U-bend aquatic artifact in an attempt to clear the passage. Unfortunately, my attempts failed. The next morning, after numerous snakes, plungers, and potions were deployed, the situation remained unchanged. My dear brother then decided it was time to call in a professional plumber. We looked one up in the local paper, a man—his advertisement said—with more than 40 years worth of experience. He was at least as old as the toilet itself.

After arriving, he proceeded to prod the drainage system with numerous rods. Sadly, the situation remained unresolved. It was time to bring in experts and the equivalent of the American company known as Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Drain Cleaning Services was called in a final attempt to clean up the mess.

Needless to say, at an exorbitant cost, these experts managed to understand how the situation had occurred and suggest a remedy. Using a rather unsophisticated borescope, the company’s technicians visualized the inside of the drain. At one point, close to my brother’s house, he had planted a tree, the roots of which had tunneled through the drainage system, causing the blockage.

After successfully removing the blockage, the very same engineers suggested installing a new drainage system throughout—a procedure that will set my brother back a few thousand dollars.

Back on track

On the train back to the airport, I wondered about the rather larger open orifices used in railway transportation. To my amazement and delight, however, I discovered that one company—The Mermec Group in Italy, described on page 21 of this issue—has already developed an imaging system to solve just this problem.

Using a combination of infrared lighting, sophisticated optics, and area and linescan array cameras, The Mermec Group has built an imaging system that can scan tunnel walls for cracks and any objects that may impede the train’s progress. Before any tragedies occur, the system can analyze 3-D images of these structures at speeds up to 300 kph as a train moves through a tunnel.

After writing the piece of prose under discussion, I wondered whether such technology could have been used to help my brother. By using IR illumination and sophisticated imaging equipment, a 3-D profile of his drain system could have been presented to him, showing the root causes of his problems—no pun intended—in a most dramatic way.

At present, of course, the cost to engineer such a profiling device may be prohibitive. In the future, with advances in low-cost miniaturized cameras and optics systems, such developments for other commercial uses are not out of the question.

More important, miniaturized systems may be used in medical applications where a very sophisticated imaging-based catheter could be inserted into a blood vessel. In this way, potentially life-threatening conditions such as aneurysms could be revealed in their 3-D glory and assessed for quicker treatment.

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