Drones to help Irish Railways spot Damage on Tracks

The company will go to the market in the new year seeking a ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (UAV) which is capable of taking high-definition images and provide a live video feed to operators.

The move comes after the company contracted an outside company to provide drone photography to assess flood levels around sections of track near Carrick-on-Shannon, which were closed for 16 days following Storm Desmond, and which were inaccessible by road and rail.

The drones will be used to conduct boundary and topographic surveys, structural inspections and monitoring and vegetation surveys. It will also allow for incident response and to track risks to the network from climate change.

“Our main climate change challenges are coastal erosion on the Wexford line and flood events throughout the network and their increasing prevalence,” a spokesman said. “We would have historically flown the Wexford line from time to time with aerial photography by helicopter, but drone technology is so much more affordable and useful. “We envisage greater effectiveness and flexibility in monitoring our infrastructure, and a lot of potential savings with the use of this technology.”

The rail network includes 2,400km of track and a wide range of infrastructure including bridges, viaducts, cuttings and embankments and coastal defences. The company will seek tenders in January to supply a multi-rotor unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) and training for up to 10 staff. The drone must include a 30 mega-pixel camera capable of taking high-definition images and video.

What is a Drone?

An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone and also referred by several other names is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The flight of UAVs may be controlled either autonomously by onboard computers or by the remote control of a pilot on the ground or in another vehicle.They are usually of two types; Multi Rotor (that can hover like a helicopter) or Fixed Wing (that fly like an aircraft). The image has some more details an specs of these drones.

What is the use of a drone?

Drones can carry payloads. The payload can be goods, cameras, sensors or any other instrument necessary, within the limits of weight, safety and other regulatory aspects. Data (images, sensor readings etc) that is collected by the drones, are sent to a cloud where they can be analyzed for actions, alerts or insights. Interesting use cases of drones are emerging in Agriculture, Retail and Insurance industries, but the potential for many more innovative uses is huge!!

  1. Do you know that drones were used in Alaska for oil spill clean-up after a pipeline break.
  2. Do you know that drone can collect water samples to detect oil leaks?
  3. Do you know that drones with advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are giving farmers new ways to increase agricultural yields and reduce crop damages.

These are some of the different types of payloads attached to UAVs.

  • Multispectral Imaging
  • LIDAR Imaging
  • InfraRed Imaging
  • Thermal Imaging

Unmanned inspection vehicles will increase safety and efficiency for the freight network

After years of accusations of foot-dragging on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulation, the Federal Aviation Administration has recently been speeding exemption approvals and announcing new regulatory programs. One beneficiary is BNSF Railway, which has gained approval for a pilot(less) program to use drones to inspect its far-flung network of rails. The inspections could help reduce derailments and other safety problemsand though BNSF isn’t saying so, lead to lower labor costs in the long run.

Rail safety is drawing new focus after May’s catastrophic Amtrak derailment. Though that accident’s immediate cause was excessive speed, the Federal Railroad Administration reports that nearly 500 derailments were caused by defective track in 2014, making up more than a third of total rail accidents. Those derailments caused 35 injuries and $94 million in damages last year. BNSF says its drones will allow for more frequent track inspections,which should reduce track-caused derailments.

The FAA has greenlit more than 400 so-called “333 exemptions” for limited drone operations since this February. But unlike most operators, BNSF will be testingUAV’s outside of direct visual contact with their operator,referred to as “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS, operation. BVLOS operation is regarded as more risky by the FAA.

BNSF has earned this special right as part of the FAA’s Pathfinder program, an initiative to develop UAV regulation in collaboration with industry that was announced in May. CNN and the drone systems makerPrecisionHawk USA are the other two inaugural participants, and the FAA has invited applicants from other sectors.

The ability to fly drones long distances is crucial to BNSF’s goals for the program. The railway owns over 32,500 miles of rail line across the U.S., and says that every foot of trackis inspected in person twice a week. But some of that track is hundreds of miles from any major population center, increasing the expense and inconvenience of manned inspection. BNSF has emphasized that its drone program would allow for more frequent inspections, rather than replacing human crews.

A few technical obstacles do face the program. BNSFannounced that its initial UAV fleet will include AirRobotmodels AR180 and AR200, and 3DRobotics Spektres. Those three models are multi-rotor copters, which would be able to hover for closer inspection of areas of concern, but the range of rotor UAV’s is generally quite limited. The AR180, for instance, flies less than four miles on a charge.

The imaging payloads for these drones is also still a question mark. While visible-spectrum cameras could detect some obvious obstructions, some crucial railwayfaults are invisible to the naked eye. Inspection teams today use ultrasound equipment weighing up to hundreds of poundsvastly more than even a large drone could tote.

According to University of Oklahoma-based UAV expert James Grimsley, one alternative is laser-based profiling, or LIDAR. The Canadian company Pavemetrics has shown its laser-based system can detect hairline cracks in rails and ties, and DARPA is developing a chip-based LIDAR that would be very lightweight.

BNSF representatives have emphasized that safety is the program’s only immediate goal. Though the Federal Railroad Administration reports that rail accident rates have fallen by 43 percent since 2000, freight derailments are still potentially catastrophic. The increasing presence of crude oil on the rails is a particular concerntwo crude oil tankers have derailed in Philadelphia in the last two years, just around the corner from last month’s Amtrak crash.

Drones could also save lives even without inspecting track.Hundreds of people are killed every year while trespassing on railroad propertymany times more than are killed while travelling on passenger rail. Aerial drones would be significantly more effective than landbound security forces in detecting trespassers.

But, despite BNSF’s public emphasis on safety, drone-based inspections also present a huge potential laborefficiency. The work is both remote and demanding, with the FRA’s description making sure to mention that inspectors may have to deal with “disagreeable insects, toxic vegetation, or poisonous snakes.”

Though injury and fatality rates for rail inspectors specifically are not tracked by the government, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that railroad workers as a whole suffer more than twice the national worker fatality rate, with more than ¼ of fatalities among pedestrian workers struck by trains. Those conditions help push private rail inspector salaries to a mean of more than $71,000 a year, according to the BLS. Equipping those inspectors with drones could eventually allow the same work to be done by far fewer people.

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