This paper describes a new system for high-speed and non-contact rail defect detection being developed at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). A prototype using an ultrasonic air-coupled guided wave signal generation and air-coupled signal detection has been tested at the UCSD Rail Defect Farm. 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. In addition to a real-time statistical analysis algorithm, the prototype uses a specialized filtering approach to mitigate the inherently poor signal-to-noise ratio of the air-coupled ultrasonic measurements in rail steel. The laboratory results indicate that the prototype is able to detect internal rail defects with a high reliability. 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. Extensions of the system capability are planned to add rail surface characterization to the internal rail defect detection to optimize rail grinding operations.

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