Driving bus fleets into the cloud

Author : Zeljko Loncaric, Marketing Engineer at Congatec; and Iñigo Etxabe, Chief Technology Officer at Datik

04 October 2018

Connecting their fleets to the cloud is a must for public transport operators today. Accordingly, transport management solutions provider, Datik, have edge computers that also manage the intelligence required inside the buses, consolidating the vehicles’ processing capabilities into a single ‘one for all’ device – powered by scalable Congatec Qseven modules...

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Public transport operators now want to monitor and manage their fleets in real time, to optimise service quality, reduce costs and improve security. To achieve this, it is necessary to transmit all relevant information from the vehicles into the cloud in real time – including video surveillance for security. Stable connectivity and high bandwidth are required for this, as well as a reliable computing platform that can be tailored to operators’ varying demands.

Most modern cities and urban areas today offer at least 3G, with up to 7.2 Mbit/s – or even LTE, with up to 3.9 Gbit/s mobile bandwidth. This is sufficient to stream even high-bandwidth data from multiple surveillance cameras to the cloud. As a consequence, the previous challenge of ensuring high-bandwidth connectivity has been reduced to the question of whether the operator demands such service, and if it is within its budget.

Today, the major challenge lies in tailoring the fleet application’s setup and providing a powerful edge computing platform that can host all required services – so that operators can freely choose from a wide array of services, and configure them to suit. These include (but are not limited to):

1. Fleet location and service punctuality tracking

2. Driver console, for various purposes, including navigation

3. Fuel consumption control, with variable objectives for each route

4. Voice call functionality between bus driver and control centre

Credit: Shutterstock

5. Vehicle health monitoring, with alarm functions via several CAN buses (for example, drivetrain, comfort and diagnosis)

6. Ticketing with validators and/or ticket printers

7. Passenger information at bus stops and on buses, by displays and announcements

8. Digital signage integration, with location-based content

9. Video surveillance with multiple cameras, including recording and live streaming to the control room

10. Wi-Fi for passengers, with bandwidth control, content filtering, and captive portal for passenger tracking and statistics

Modular features to optimise customer satisfaction

Datik has chosen a modular approach, for both its fleet services design and the underlying hardware platform that handles computation and communication in the buses. Operators can select the services they need, and also choose from modular options within these different services.

Credit: Shutterstock

For punctuality tracking, for example, arrival times can be displayed only on the driver console and the management cloud, or also on screens in the vehicles and at bus stops.

An additional app for iOS and Android can round off the service offerings, for both conductors and passengers. The same modular approach applies to all connected peripherals, including ticket validators and printers. Flexible display and video camera configurations for up to four cameras are also possible.

To address all these variable needs with a single rugged, low power edge computing platform design, Datik was looking for a RISC-based architecture design that is capable of the easiest engine switching – and settled on computer-on-modules, based on the Qseven form factor.

Standardised computer-on-modules

Computer-on-modules (COMs) are standardised and application-ready computing cores for customised systems. The benefits of such components are not only a reduced bill of materials for the purchasing department, but also massive time and cost savings compared to full custom designs.

The modules come with an application-ready board support package, and often also with PCB and interface layout samples for the custom-specific carrier board that only needs to be adapted to the application.

This enables OEMs to take advantage of the customisation capabilities of a full custom design paired with the fast time-to-market and cost efficiency of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions.

Additionally, the modularity of COMs offers high scalability and longevity because the modules can easily be exchanged, regardless of the module and processor vendors. This makes standardised COMs much more attractive for designers of ARM/RISC-based platforms than any proprietary module or processor-specific evaluation platform (which inevitably lead to costly full custom designs).

Credit: Shutterstock

COMs also considerably reduce effort within the entire lifecycle, as connected devices require constant updates (such as driver or firmware updates), which module vendors typically provide off-the-shelf. Standardisation further offers vendor-independent hosting, ensuring stable and reliable advancement of the specifications.

The most suitable standard

Among the available COM standards, Datik seriously considered Qseven and SMARC – as both form factors support RISC/ARM and x86 processor technologies (while COM Express only supports x86). Qseven proved the most convincing option, as it has the largest base of installed devices in the market today, ensuring that this form factor will be supported for years to come. And since small form factor designs are a growth market, Qseven stands to profit from this trend by growing sales and adoption over coming years.

SMARC, on the other hand, was not an ideal option: the new 2.0 specification had not been released at the time and market share is still uncomfortably low. From Datik’s point of view, a switch to SMARC 2.0 is only justified in cases where more than three independent displays driven by a single platform are needed.

To power its versatile platform, Datik selected conga-QMX6 Qseven modules with powerful NXP i.MX6 processors. The ARM Cortex 9-based processor family offers the advantage of broad scalability – ranging from single, to dual, and up to quad-core options.

The processors further provide high computing capabilities, combined with a powerful graphics solution for multiple displays, and integrate a hardware-based video decoding/encoding engine, which is important for video surveillance.

The i.MX6 processor family is also qualified for automotive applications, and consequently, the ideal platform for Datik’s demands. To be able to run all the different tasks on one Qseven module, Datik chose the quad-core option with 4x 1.0 GHz performance. Another benefit of these processors is that they are broadly supported by different operating systems, including Android and the Yocto Project, which makes developers independent from the underlying processor architecture that Datik uses on its platform.

Extending scalability beyond i.MX6

The Datik DCB fleet edge computer integrates all required in-vehicle functions and offers ultra-scalable ARM processor performance due to the use of Qseven Computer-on-Modules

This support also paves the way for Datik to potentially leverage modules with other processor technologies. Here, Qseven offers multiple options: the available portfolio includes the latest Intel Atom, Celeron and Pentium processors, as well as AMD Embedded G-Series APUs. This broad scalability enables vendors such as Datik to offer products in various performance shapes, by simply swapping off-the-shelf available modules.

Datik has already identified a performance booster for future system enhancements: the Qseven module with an I.MX8 processor (the next generation of processors, expected to become available soon).

This is, in fact, a perfect example of the benefits of a modular approach with standardised COMs, versus a full custom design. With standardised COMs, you only need to ask your vendor to deliver the new module, plug it in, test it – and you are ready to go.

The vehicle computer’s feature set

Finally, let’s have a look at what the fanless Datik system offers: the quad-core Datik Computing Brain (DCB) system is running embedded Linux, based on Yocto. The passenger infotainment displays are connected via HDMI, and the driver console with touchscreen uses VGA. Up to four cameras with infrared vision for critical lighting situations can be connected.

An audio I/O connector is dedicated for passenger information, driver announcements and real-time communication with the control centre. Moreover, two vehicle connectors offer relevant vehicle interfaces, including 3x CAN bus and 1x K-line for vehicle diagnosis, 2x RS-232/RS-485 for peripherals such as displays and/or printers, 1x odometer, as well as 12 digital inputs and 4x digital outputs with diagnosis.

Dedicated interfaces connect the GPS, Wi-Fi and 3G antennas. In addition, the system provides 3x USB as well as 1x Gigabit Ethernet for validators and further connectivity. OS, applications and system data (such as the navigation software) are stored on a 4 GB SSD; plus, the video streams from the surveillance cameras can be stored on a second 250 GB SSD.

Picking the right module vendor

Datik chose Congatec as their module vendor because the company is well known in this market and application niche, and has a reputable local distribution partner in Spain, with Matrix. To quote Datik’s chief technology officer Iñigo Etxabe: “With deployments in Madrid, Paris, Warsaw and Marseille in Europe, as well as other cities around the world, Congatec and Matrix make it very easy for customers to test and validate new solutions, and to this day, we have always delivered comfortable lead times to manage any transition. Now we are really looking forward to getting our hands on the upcoming I.MX8 modules.”

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