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Drone use ready for takeoff in the world of rail.

Posted by Luke Upton on Mar 25, 2015

Aeryon_Scout_In_FlightThe steady development of the use of unmanned aerial vehicle's (UAV's), commonly known as drones within the rail industry will take a step forward this week, with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) unveiling plans to make it easier for companies to use drones in business operations. Whilst other railways around the world continue to develop their use in a variety of ways commercial drone flights are generally banned in the US. But the FAA will soon allow a far wider use of them and streamline the process for gaining authorisation. A wide variety of companies have pushed for these barriers to be eased, and amongst those that have already gained exemptions are BNSF Railway– who aim to utilises drones, equipped with cameras to monitor trains and inspect track.

Last year, fellow Class One Railroad, Union Pacific Chief Executive Officer Jack Koraleski, stated they too are looking at drones to improve the efficiency of maintenance on the network: “You could send a drone to do the inspection and then if it saw something you could send a person up to do the final inspection,” Koraleski said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York. “We’re just starting to explore what might make sense and how you could use them.”

Meanwhile in January in the UK, Network Rail (the owner and operator of most of the nation’s rail infrastructure) awarded a framework contract to four companies to use drones to perform infrastructure inspections and land surveys. Network Rail will use the map data provided by the drones to improve track maintenance and boost field worker efficiency while reducing the amount of working at height required on Network Rail’s assets.

Network Rail spokesman Dan Donovan, speaking to Rail Technology Magazine said bigger changes are on the horizon too, telling us: "We would like to bring this service in-house. We don’t own any UAVs or pilots; at the moment, we’re subcontracting it out to these four [companies]. They know we would like to bring it in-house eventually, and we are working with them to see what is the best way of doing that. Instead of using a helicopter to do these jobs, which is incredibly expensive per hour, we could turn it around in an hour – send up 'one man in a van' with a UAV to get the job done. It’s quicker, cheaper and safer. It’s something we’d love to do in the near future.”

In London, the BBC this month has been allowed to fly a remote controlled camera along the tunnels of Crossrail, the giant building project that will eventually see trains criss-crossing London and the South East on a brand new train line. Check it out below.

For the light rail network in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, drones are being deployed to act as extra surveillance following recent riots which saw stations and tracks of the line destroyed. “We in the city had made use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for various purposes recently, and we thought this would be an excellent opportunity to make use of the technology,” Mayor Nir Barkat told The Times of Israel. “With UAVs, you get great high-resolution images taken from a birds-eye perspective, giving you the flexibility to zero in on any potential trouble spots in a way that ground level cameras cannot accomplish.” The drones would record video and images, which can then be analysed by the police to help narrow down culprits.

Editor’s Comment – as with many new technologies, the potential and the threats of the deployment of drones by the rail industry have probably both been exaggerated and overplayed. They are a tool like any other, and for certain jobs will save money and will improve efficiency. But usage regulations for example, in the US within three miles of an airport, and the cost of rolling them out in a time of stretched budgets will for the time being likely limit their deployment.

(Lead picture Aeryon Scout In Flight" by Dkroetsch - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - )

SmartRail USA Congress and Expo 2015

(See also: How high-res 3D imagery is helping grow Victoria’s rail asset database. and EXCLUSIVE: How a changing US rail industry is helping Verizon create an intelligent telecommunications network. )

Topics: IT and WiFi

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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