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July 27, 2016

Applied Physics Lab Team Develops Innovative Remote Rail Security and Inspection System

Rail Security and Inspection System

Equipped with cameras and sensors, the Instrumented Rail Inspection System, or IRiS, can help first responders to quickly assess the scene of a railway incident and prevent putting people into potentially dangerous situations by providing visual situational awareness and detecting hazards. Credit: JHU/APL.

A set of rail cars overturns on a stretch of remote track, a mile or so from the nearest access road. Chemicals or other hazardous materials may have spilled across the area, posing danger to the first observers to arrive on the scene.

Enter the Instrumented Rail Inspection System, or IRiS. Developed by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, IRiS is a remote-controlled, rail-riding vehicle designed to provide reconnaissance information to first responders and law enforcement personnel when railway incidents occur. IRiS can help them to quickly assess the scene and prevent putting people into potentially dangerous situations by providing visual situational awareness and detecting hazards.

Equipped with visible and near infrared cameras, the system — which is about the size of an all-terrain vehicle — can serve as the eyes of the first responder. The unit can also accommodate an array of sensors that include chemical or radiation detection, making IRiS an ideal solution for first entry into active events such as rail accidents and bomb threats, according to members of the development team in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector.

Operators can control IRiS remotely from a single, portable station that allows them to simultaneously maneuver the vehicle and review the telemetry from the cameras and sensors. And unlike larger, conventional inspection systems, IRiS can be placed on and taken off the track site within minutes, greatly reducing the impact on scheduled rail services.

Funded by the Transportation Security Administration, IRiS was created through an iterative process in which APL engineers worked with transit agencies to assess their needs, and then used those requirements to design and build a prototype system with assistance from APL technicians, machinists and materials experts. The two-year development also included several live tests in metro transit systems to demonstrate the capability of IRiS to operate effectively on the rails either above or below ground in transit tunnels.

TSA encouraged IRiS development to address a critical need in the rail industry, and rail transit agencies contributed feedback based on their operational experiences.

APL recently entered into an agreement with the Harsco Corporation, whose Protran Technology unit will evaluate the feasibility of introducing the unmanned vehicle technology to traditional railway safety, security and emergency operations.

Rail transit agencies, and their riders and customers, will be the ultimate beneficiaries of IRiS development. The developers point to IRiS as a great example of the government funding development of an innovative technology that could potentially contribute to the safety and security of the nation’s critical transportation infrastructure.

Read more about APL’s Technology Transfer programs.

Media contact: Michael Buckley, 240-228-7536,

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a not-for-profit division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit

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