“This is going to be a multiyear project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe."
The virtues of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for disaster recovery on rail networks have been brought to the fore in recent weeks after the devices were deployed in the US to help monitor the network following a devastating hurricane. Commonly known as a drones, UAVs have been a useful link in Houston after it was hit by Hurricane Harvey, surveying its rail tracks to assess which areas need repairs. Incredibly manoeuvrable devices, drones can reach heights of 11,000 feet and are equipped with high-definition cameras that can take video and still images.
The Atlantic weather system, Hurricane Harvey, has claimed more than 40 of the city’s inhabitants and inflicted damage estimated to be in the region of $120bn. The technology could prove invaluable if they’re used to assess the damage felt from the current hurricane, Irma, which at the time of writing is still battering the US. In Florida’s Florida Keys, one of the worst-hit regions, there are reports that a quarter of all homes have been destroyed.
Back in Houston, Texas governor Greg Abbott made it clear that it will be a number of years before normal services are resumed, even with the help of drones. “This is going to be a multiyear project for Texas to be able to dig out of this catastrophe,” said Abbott on ABC’s Good Morning America, requiring what he described as a “massive, massive clean-up process”.
The US, which used drones in 2014 to improve the efficiency of maintenance on its rail network, isn’t the first to use them for such purposes. In the same year, the UK’s maintainer of the network, Network Rail, used what it named the 'orange hornet' to monitor the 100 metres of wall in Dawlish, Devon, which was washed into the sea following the biggest storm in a generation. While in the Netherlands, national railway company, ProRail, used drones equipped with infrared sensors to check the switch point heating systems on its tracks, dramatically reducing the man hours required to do it manually.
Providing a shot in the arm for its own professional drone pilots, the US eased the restrictions on the use of drones in 2015 that legalised previously illegal commercial flights. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced rules that made the process for gaining authorisation simpler, following it up a year later with updated regulations that meant commercial operators of the remote-controlled devices no longer had to seek official explicit approval to use them. Professional operators still needed to complete an FAA-approved competency test, however.
There are fears from official channels that the increasing availability of drones, owing to lower prices and the number of manufacturers producing them, could bring about a situation that threatens recovery efforts. The FAA has issued a statement on its website to discourage hobbyists from interfering, threatening “significant fines”. “Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if a Temporary Flight Restriction is not in place,” said the statement.
Hurricane Harvey was officially the wettest tropical storm on record in mainland America, with 40 inches of rain falling in many areas, the cataclysmic damage caused has forced Union Pacific and Berkshire Hathaway’s BNSF Railway, and regional railroad Kansas City Southern, have suspended operations in the area affected by the storm.
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