The University of California at San Diego (UCSD), under a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Office of Research and Development (R&D) grant, is developing a system for high-speed and non-contact rail integrity evaluation. A prototype using an ultrasonic air-coupled guided wave signal generation and air-coupled signal detection, in pair with a real-time statistical analysis algorithm, is being developed. This solution presents an improvement over the previously considered laser/air-coupled hybrid system because it replaces the costly and hard-to-maintain laser with a much cheaper, faster, and easier-to-maintain air-coupled transmitter. This system requires a specialized filtering approach due to the inherently poor signal-to-noise ratio of the air-coupled ultrasonic measurements in rail steel. Various aspects of the prototype have been designed with the aid of numerical analyses. In particular, simulations of ultrasonic guided wave propagation in rails have been performed using a Local Interaction Simulation Approach (LISA) algorithm. Many of the system operating parameters were selected based on Receiver Operating Characteristic (ROC) curves, which provide a quantitative manner to evaluate different detection performances based on the trade-off between detection rate and false positive rate. Experimental tests have been carried out at the UCSD Rail Defect Farm. The laboratory results indicate that the prototype is able to detect internal rail defects with a high reliability. A field test will be planned later in the year to further validate these results. Extensions of the system are planned to add rail surface characterization to the internal rail defect detection.

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