SECURITY Can remote sensing positively impact railway infrastructure monitoring?
In the last two years, a new European Union project called MOMIT has made a goal of demonstrating the value that remote sensing technology—which drones and satellites provide—can bring to railway infrastructure monitoring. In effect, this technology may allow rail operators to better address natural hazards and/or disasters in the future.
In 2017, Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking, a public-private partnership within the EU Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, spent €59.9m funding what’s known as the MOMIT project, which stands for multi-scale observation and monitoring of railway infrastructure threats.
One of the background assumptions of the project was that innovations in remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) and information and communications technology (ICT) will lead to significant new levels of data analysis. The hope is this data will have enough value added to it that it can support decision-making processes related to railway infrastructure monitoring. MOMIT’s objectives specify that going forward, “automation and flexibility will be the keywords.”
MOMIT ran from September 2017 to October 2019 and consisted of efforts from six partner organizations: Italian satellite geo-information firm E-GEOS SPA, Italian railway ICT engineering company NEAT SRL, French drone service provider Terabee, Catalonian R&D center CTTC, Italian railway infrastructure firm Rete Ferroviaria Italiana (RTI), and the University of Alicante in Spain.
MOMIT’s general conclusions were that remote sensing technology can be successfully applied to multiple real-world operating scenarios, such as the monitoring—via electromagnetic waves (radar)—of ground movement in and around rail lines.
What can be monitored
One of the incidents cited by MOMIT that was effected by such movement was a six-carriage train derailment caused by a landslide in November 2018 48 kilometers north of Barcelona, between the Spanish municipalities of Manresa and Terrassa. One person died and 44 were injured when this unforeseen event occurred.
According to MOMIT, using remote sensing monitoring, hydraulic activities—such as fluctuations in soil moisture or variations of water bodies—could trigger vital alerts regarding potential flooding in specific areas. Lately, extreme weather events such as the flash floods in southeast Spain last September have begun to make this type of monitoring more appealing.
Satellite data could also be used to detect phenomena like excess vegetation growth, while drones equipped with appropriate sensors could also be used to spot electrical anomalies capable of impacting infrastructure efficiencies. Both radar and optical surveillance are capable of detecting illicit activities along tracks.
Cost and time efficiencies
Beyond technical grounds, a case can be made for remote sensing when it comes to cost. Infrastructure costs often comprise up to a third of a railway’s operating expenses, which traditionally are labor-intensive. Both automation and predictive maintenance may be able to increase cost efficiencies and save time, particularly with procedures that are hands-on and/or cumbersome.
Remote-sensing monitoring could also bring increases in safety; both drones and satellites may mean less personnel could be required for some jobs—an appealing prospect. When considering incidents such as the tragic death last year of two rail workers in Port Talbot, UK while they were carrying out routine maintenance, this prospect appears quite timely.
Why drones and railways go together
For some observers, drones and railways are a natural coupling. In the UK, Network Rail, which owns and manages that country’s rail infrastructure, has employed drones to facilitate track inspections. Network Rail is said to prefer drones for this work because of their minimal invasiveness and low impact on daily train traffic. In Germany, rail operator Deutsche Bahn is also believed to be considering drones for similar work.
“The availability of 30cm, very high resolution (VHR) optical imagery from satellites such as Worldview-3 has enabled a range of applications that would previously have required lower-altitude airborne sensors,” says Damian Clarke, a senior data exploitation consultant at Plextek, a UK-based technology development and design firm.
“This allows high-quality images to be easily collected over large areas and then analyzed to extract useful information. For railway applications, this includes the ability to assess the amount of vegetation growing alongside the track. Along with radar satellite systems, they can also be used to detect such issues as landslides or subsidence that could lead to damage to the railway and subsequent accidents.”