The trams that so well define the face of Melbourne’s public transport have existed in some form for well over a century.
With electric trams moving passengers between Box Hill Station and Doncaster as far back as 1889, travel by tram has also become an iconic part of Melbourne’s rich history.
Technology and innovation has propelled the Victorian capital’s famous trams into the 21st Century. The introduction of smartphone apps such as tramTRACKER has helped improve the public’s use of the tram system by giving them real-time information on where a tram is and how far away it is from their stop.
The development of such technology has helped change how the public transport system is used, and researchers in Australia and around the world are set to explore how systems like Melbourne’s tram network, and wider transport infrastructure, can be further optimised and made smarter to cater for future growth and demand.
The Australian Integrated Multimodal EcoSystem (AIMES) is a new initiative led by the University of Melbourne in conjunction with around 40 businesses, research bodies and government partners.
AIMES is a proposed transport test bed area that covers six square kilometres, comprising 25 kilometres of roadways in Melbourne’s inner-north. Its boundaries are Alexandra Parade in the north, Victoria Street to the south, Hoddle Street to the east and Lygon Street on the western side.
The idea behind AIMES is to introduce a network of sensors to the test bed area that will be used to study, test and deploy a variety of innovative connected transport technologies in a real-world setting. This includes vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication systems, which can be deployed and tested to ascertain their effectiveness in vehicle fleets and infrastructure/assets. The accumulation of this research data is directed at providing real-time operational management opportunities for the entire multimodal transport system – bikes and pedestrians included.
The focus on connected technology will help provide research into how connectivity among transport users and between users and infrastructure (traffic lights, intersections, bridges) could enable crash reduction, potentially crash prevention, and efficient navigation. This is aimed at helping to improve productivity, safety, mobility and environmental benefits.
The testing bed is also aimed at helping address major challenges cities face in maintaining and improving levels of mobility, accessibility and sustainability in the future, in part due to the anticipated effects of urban population growth.
Majid Sarvi, Professor in Transport for Smart Cities from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering in the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, and head of the AIMES project, says it will be the largest urban connected environment in the world.
“It’s taken two years to go from concept to now, where we’ve started to put our first sensors in place to connect 12 intersections together. The idea is to have it all up and running by the end of 2018, and begin exploring the different opportunities out there,” he says.
The past couple of years has seen a number of companies come onboard with the project as partners, including the likes of VicRoads and City of Melbourne, and Prof. Sarvi says there is a lot of scope for more organisations to get involved given the significant amount of smart systems available in the market.
“There is a lot of technology out there to test, and we want to keep AIMES really open. The fact there is so much innovation out there in the industry, we need to figure out what works with what, as not all companies’ technology will work together,” Prof. Sarvi explains.
“The whole idea is we want to work out in the intelligent transport system space where things work and don’t work, and many companies have been keen to be establish something like this for Australia as there are many other testing beds similar in varying degrees internationally.”
Prof. Sarvi says a big factor that will differentiate AIMES from international counterparts is its holistic approach towards the broader transport infrastructure system, which aims to fill a number of gaps in information when it comes to the broader transport system.
“There are many similar projects around the world. Every country is doing a lot of pilots, but a unique feature of ours is it’s multimodal and looking at the whole system.”
AIMES will focus on the broad aspects of the transport system, including connected vehicles and roadways, connected freight and city logistics, connected public transport, connected pedestrians and cyclists and smart public transport stations.
“This kind of technology has been around for a long time, but we’re looking at ways to find connections between different technologies and different models and build applications around those,” Prof. Sarvi explains.
“This is a step-by-step sort of approach to move from a model of data to what we’ll have in 20 years. We have all the data and technology available now, but we’re working towards bringing it all together and approach it as a whole-of-system kind of thing.
“The significance of the project is quite large if we can potentially solve some of the issues our transport systems are facing,” he adds.
With that holistic view in mind, Prof. Sarvi says AIMES is designed to be coordinated as openly as possible.
“People can bring in their ideas and run it, and the data from those tests will be available to businesses afterwards. We want it to be as open as possible so there’s plenty of opportunity for people to get involved.”
With more collaboration, Prof. Sarvi says the ability to solve greater transport issues and provide unique solutions will come more easily.
“There are lots of challenges ahead, but there is a lot of innovation that we could put into this as we go, such as finding innovative solutions for the tram system’s connectivity as a whole,” he says.
“The benefits of AIMES is that we’re able to tackle these challenges in a holistic way, and companies who come on board will be able to see first-hand the issues government and other businesses are facing in this space.”
Prof. Sarvi asserts that AIMES also presents a unique opportunity for Australian technology and automotive businesses and manufacturers, particularly those that are downscaling and seeking different avenues to be involved in the local market.
“AIMES is giving these business the chance to transfer their technology and innovations to different areas. We want to help explore how automotive manufacturers, for instance, could transfer their technology to this space, and AIMES is providing a supportive forum where these business can talk with each other,” he says.
“AIMES provides a first glance of what is coming and gives industry the chance to work together.”
While Prof. Sarvi is excited for the project to become a reality, the Australian industry is already praising the initiative and what it could bring to the table in the future.
The project was awarded with an OpenGov Asia Recognition of Excellence award for innovative and disruptive use of technology in the public sector, in late 2017. Following that, it was named the Research Award Winner at the 2017 Intelligent Transport Systems Australia National Awards in November last year.
“These awards really confirm what we’re doing in the industry, and that confirmation shows we’re heading in the right direction with the right vision,” he says.
Prof. Sarvi is enthusiastic about the progress AIMES is making, and what the initiative may bring to Australia not just in the next few decades but the next couple of years.
“A lot of the technology is already out there on the market. Through AIMES, we’re seeking how to adopt these concepts effectively. This environment is not set up for blue-sky thinking, but things we can do tomorrow – things we can do quickly that government can adapt and adopt in both the mid-term and long terms,” notes Prof. Sarvi.
“We’d like to make transport systems more effective, cleaner, safer and more sustainable, and tackle the issues head-on.”