Traditional Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) solutions have been deemed insufficient to address the requirements of freight railroad companies to implement real-time monitoring and control of their trains, tracks and wayside equipment. With only ZigBee-based elements, the transmission capabilities of WSN devices are limited in terms of coverage range and throughput. This leads to severe delay and congestion in the network, particularly in railroad scenarios that usually require the nodes to be arranged in linear chain-like topology. In such a multi-hop topology to communicate from one end of a train to the locomotive — and due to ZigBee’s limited communication range — data needs to be transmitted using a very high number of hops and thus generates long delays and congestion problems.

To overcome this drawback, we have proposed a heterogeneous multi-hop networking approach called “Hybrid Technology Networking” (HTN). In HTN we combined Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) technologies like WiFi, which provide improved communication range and higher data rates, with low-power communication technologies like ZigBee. This significantly reduces the number of hops required to deliver data across the network and hence solves the issues of delay and congestion, while also achieving superior enery efficiency and network lifetime. The sensor nodes are logically divided into clusters and each cluster has a WiFi “gateway”. All intra-cluster communication is achieved via IEEE 802.15.4 and ZigBee protocols, while all inter-cluster communication utilizes WiFi protocol standards.

To implement our proposed technology in railroad networks, we are designing hardware prototypes and simulation models to evaluate the functionality and performance of our HTN solution, which is designed around a dual network stack design governed by the HTN protocol. This ensures full compliance with IEEE and industry communication protocols for interoperability. Since no simulation tools that seamlessly combine both WSN and WLAN technologies in a single module exist, we wrote our own simulation environment using OPNET. In this paper, we have provided information of implementing the HTN protocol in OPNET and the simulation results for different scenarios relevant to railroad operations. These results will demonstrate the efficacy of our proposed system as well as provide the baseline data for testing the hardware devices in live networks. Under simulated traffic and channel conditions and device configurations, we observed a decrease of 77.27% in end-to-end delay and an increase of 69.70% in received data volume when using HTN compared to ZigBee-only multi-hop networks, simulated over 14 railcars in railroad-relevant scenarios.

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