Drones for Transportation and railroad

Drones for Transportation and Railroad

The United States has nearly 140,000 miles of railroad tracks that transport one-third of U.S. exports, delivering five million tons of freight, and 100,000 passengers daily. It is the responsibility of the railroad entity to ensure the good working condition (maintenance, replacement, and upgrade) of most of the nation’s track, bridges, and connections at ports.

Due to the tremendous magnitude of railroad infrastructure within the United States, the task of inspecting and maintaining tracks has not kept up with technology but there has been a very recent adoption of drone technology. The main difficulty in the boots-on-the-ground inspection model has been the lack of automation, scalability, and repeatability resulting in huge delays in reporting, sometimes taking months with little to no actionable information.

One of the major challenges facing railroad networks is preventing obvious failures in tracks. Preventing potential malfunctions requires inspecting thousands of miles of the track while avoiding risk to inspectors and traffic interference.

benefits of drones for railway INFRASTRUCTURE inspections

Regular maintenance and inspection procedures often require personnel to be within the rail corridor to perform visual inspections. A range of safety protocols have been introduced to minimize risks, but they involve expensive track possession to inspect track sections, which sometimes lack clear accessible safety zones. Unmanned Aerial System drones provide an easier alternative for railway inspections and minimize the requirement of additional human resources. Drones are increasingly becoming recognized as having an important role in assisting the rail industry, and their adoption is challenging traditional models and operating procedures for all involved.

right-of-way vegetation encroachment management

Vegetation management remains one of the most expensive operational costs for the transmission and distribution of electricity within the railway system. Quantifying the risk related to vegetation is critical to ensuring service continuity and to reduce maintenance and remediation costs. By carefully surveying and mapping via 3D drone generated models of a power line and surrounding vegetation, inspectors are able to accurately determine the distance between the two.

The presence of track-side vegetation of a height exceeding that of the rail and/or in the ballast section often results in damage to track and train components ultimately increasing the risk of derailment. Slippery conditions from excess vegetation require increased use of traction sand by the locomotive, which further contaminates the railway. Additionally, there are many sources of ignition in railway operations, including sparks from brakes, diesel engines, wheels, overheated bearings and the operation of rail-grinding equipment. Combined with dry brush and weeds in hot, dry conditions creates a fire hazard, with the potential to harm the public or damage buildings, property, and railway operations. Drones are being used effectively for vegetation monitoring which, in turn, facilitates proactive control within the right of way.

Infrastructure and asset RENOVATION

The huge majority of open track has to be monitored by security guards as it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy fixed cameras along hundreds of miles of railway. Deploying drones to carry out the laborious work of physically checking the tracks for trespassers or security breaches could improve the efficiency of monitoring operations while freeing up staff to look after higher value critical assets.

It is reasonable to imagine that the use of drones could have cost-saving potential for the railways while also supporting a longer-term strategy of reducing “boots on the ground”. The drone’s nimble ability to allow operations to continue during inspections prevents the costly network closures required to permit people to access the track.  Additionally, drones are able to capture data from areas previously inaccessible by traditional methods. This opens up the possibility of gathering data easily and more frequently.