EPFL hosts a new SBB innovation unit

EPFL’s specialist knowledge makes it a particularly attractive partner for a company like SBB. ©istock

EPFL’s specialist knowledge makes it a particularly attractive partner for a company like SBB. ©istock

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) opened a new innovation unit today at EPFL’s Innovation Park, further deepening its ties with the School.

What do AI-driven object location, smart baggage trolleys and quieter rail systems have in common? They are just some of the technologies to come out of the dynamic research relationship between Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) and EPFL’s Transportation Center (TRACE).

Today, the Swiss rail company unveiled a new innovation unit at EPFL, dubbed SBB Innocell, in a move designed to further cement this relationship, harness the high-level expertise available on campus, and build more innovation into its everyday operations. “EPFL has a thriving innovation ecosystem supported by big business and researchers specializing in rail transportation,” says Hans-Jörg Stark, who heads the new unit. “Tapping into this network will help us improve rail operations and use innovation to better serve our customers.”

The School’s specialist knowledge – in fields ranging from bridge design and energy efficiency to passenger flow and timetable optimization – makes it a particularly attractive partner for a company like SBB. The Innocell builds on a formal relationship that dates back to 2014, when EPFL and SBB signed a cooperation agreement. That arrangement, known as SBB Hub, has given rise to a series of major research projects, including some funded by Innosuisse.

Expertise and creativity
The benefits of the relationship flow both ways. “We’re constantly sharing knowledge and ideas with our counterparts at SBB, even when we’re not working towards actual research projects,” says Simone Amorosi, who serves as deputy director of EPFL’s TRACE, the body responsible for liaising with industry and the public sector on passenger and freight transportation research. “And because SBB’s expertise is so broad, our labs often end up exploring novel solutions to practical problems that, on the face of it, have little to do with rail transportation.” One such example is the “On the fly” project, which uses building information modeling (BIM) software to create a digital twin of SBB’s network. It will be combined with AI-driven object location software to recognize real-world objects and link them to their equivalents in the digital model. The technology has promising applications for both network maintenance and operations.

SBB’s arrival at the EPFL Innovation Park reflects a broader desire for collaboration between the railway company and Switzerland’s two Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich.