The operating cost of drones is extremely low, particularly if they can be programmed to repeat the same flight pattern day after day.
The operating cost of drones is extremely low, particularly if they can be programmed to repeat the same flight pattern day after day.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

Safety Drones as rail workers

| Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

For station inspections, track maintenance, junction, and railyard security, and even train driving, drones may offer new capabilities and efficiencies that could afford them a long-term role in rail operations going forward. Still, unpredictable conditions, such as imperfect weather or low visibility, might limit their utility in some circumstances.

In recent years, rail companies have been testing drones for fulfilling a variety of functions to see if they can bring any advantages and/or cost savings. For rail companies, any process improvement to existing operations has the potential to save, time, money, and resources. Given the ubiquity of drones these days, it likely was only a matter of time before rail companies realized that the flying devices could have applicability throughout their industry.

While drones’ upfront cost isn’t necessarily negligible, their operating cost is extremely low, particularly if they can be programmed to repeat the same flight pattern day after day, with minimal manual guidance or intervention. Obviously, for some tasks, a drone operator would be required to orchestrate flights in real-time. But for others, it’s conceivable that takeoff and landing times could be scheduled, and everything in between could be automated.

Drones’ primary advantage is their three-dimensional spatial operation—their ability to not just move laterally but also vertically, readily avoiding obstacles, detours, moving objects, and/or train traffic. In fact, in areas of busy locomotive operations, this ability to literally float over everything else affords drones advantages that no rail worker, no matter his or her agility or stamina, can muster.

Speed, accuracy, flexibility, repeatability, and convenience mean that drones can potentially become low-cost solutions for jobs in station inspections, track maintenance, junction and railyard security, and train driving. But all these advantages may be tempered by the fact that many drones are unable to fly or may be useless in conditions of rough weather or low visibility. In such cases, these jobs may have to be either delayed or performed using alternate methods.

Thus, drones are not a “one-size-fits-all” solution, but instead, they may offer selective facilitation and optimization of costly or otherwise painstaking tasks.

Station inspections

In the Netherlands, Dutch rail operator Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS) wanted to use drones to inspect train stations and platforms to reduce expenses and improve maintenance.

The drones take photos and video that help NS determine which structures are in need of repair or possible replacement. NS hasn’t stated whether drones would one day replace human personnel. But the devices’ ability to hover at variable heights means that ceilings, rooftops, and tall vertical structures do not have to be accessed or scaled physically. It also means that zoomed-out, “big picture” views that would normally be impossible to capture are feasible, as are close-up detail inspections.

Since drones are capable of flying faster than humans can walk or run, ground and structures can be covered more rapidly than if workers had to carry out such inspections in-person.

Track maintenance

British rail infrastructure firm Network Rail uses drones for track inspection. The drones are equipped with heat-sensitive, 4K-resolution cameras that can spot faults and damage to tracks. Operation of the drones does not require closure of any tracks to train traffic.

Intrigued by the Network Rail experience, German rail operator Deutsche Bahn intends to deploy drones, both for track maintenance and infrastructure monitoring. It’s quite possible also that, going forward, rail operators may even begin to use drones for field deliveries of critical small parts or materials to work sites.

Junction and railyard security

In Poland, the largest rail freight operator is PKP Cargo. For years, PKP had been experiencing a rash of thefts of goods and materials—including coal—from its trains when they were stopped at junctions. In 2015, PKP acquired two drones to begin monitoring stations and junctions in the Polish Silesia region.

After just two years, thefts in the area decreased by 60 %. In 2017, PKP purchased a third drone to expand its “security fleet.” The drones remain in active duty today.

Train driving

Automatic Train Operation (ATO) is a hot topic in the rail industry. French technology firm Thales is developing its own specialized four-rotor drones, called railbots, to fly ahead of automated trains to serve as the “eyes” for remote operators and/or overseers. These railbots will be equipped with infrared sensors, advanced optronics, and custom electronics. For now, the operators and overseers will be human, but eventually, the day may come when this function, too, could be performed by intelligent machines.

“Be it aerial or track-bound, drones could truly become a critical part of rail safety when operators move towards autonomy in the future,” says Pierre-Antoine Benatar, a marketing manager for Thales’ Transporation Activities division.

But whether drones could replace humans universally is questionable because poor weather and/or visibility on certain days may make their use impractical or impossible.

Unlike the three other use cases outlined above, train schedules typically don’t vary. Thus, it’s unlikely that Thales could use drones for ATO on every run, although it’s possible that the company could modify its drones to function in all but the most challenging weather, perhaps ensuring their use on more than 95 percent of all scheduled trips.