Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) with its superior capabilities brings in new metamorphosis to Indian Railways

Certain challenges ranging from policies, market and operations are encumbering the progression of UAV use in India. DGCA has issued draft guidelines titled “Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)” so as to execute a regulatory framework that can encourage the commercialization of Drones in diverse fields, which is still waiting for approval.

There is an ascending demand for drones in Indian Railways over the past 4 years. There have been a number of Zonal Railway establishments and the Rail EPC firms that have steered and even scaled up operations of drones for their construction and operations along the Railway lines. Engineering Construction wings, RITES, IRCON, RailTel and various Enterprise Cos in Rail sector collects 3D digital mapping data using drone and employ it for monitoring the construction progress of Railway lines. UAS is also being used for inspection and tracking of progress of mega-projects including Dedicated Freight Corridors. Railways Traction wings engaged in the business of electrical traction works and allied activities uses UAS for monitoring, inspection, intrusion detection and surveillance for its assets in Railway areas including the newly set up solar power plants.

Even though the current regulations by Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) are in the draft phase, it has not stopped organizations to grab on this evolving technology.  India and the Indian Railways and various other sectors are witnessing an increased adoption of UAVs, especially in government projects. Organisations like NMDC, Steel Plants, BEML, Power Plants, BHEL, Coal sectors, Ports, Refineries, Forest Departments and Dams etc are using UAS in the mining/manufacturing sector and for disaster support, apart from monitoring of any anti-social activities in the Railway areas inside various mining areas in Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and in Jammu & Kashmir and various other North Eastern States.

As per the research Report released by Industry chamber FICCI and Ernst and Young titling “Make in India for Unmanned Aircraft Systems, “Adoption of UAS is increasing in India and it is projected that the value of industry and market would be around US$ 885.7 million, while the global market size will touch US$ 21.47 billion by 2021”.

The growth is anticipated in Indian Railways, Metro Rail systems, Highways, Seaways, Construction, Military and Commercial applications. In fact, it is expected that the market for commercial end-users in India will overtake the military market in the country.

Looking at the increased use of UAS many private players are also coming up with new innovations and solutions to boost the use of the technology. But, all this is not an easy task.

Application of UAV in Land Surveying on the worlds highest Bilaspur-Manali-Leh Railway line project

The Indian railways has set a target of completing the 498-km Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line and 2 other railway projects by 2019. The final location survey at Leh in Jammu and Kashmir began in the year, as per officials. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are to be extensively used not only in the entire stretch, but even in the challenging heights ranging 3,300 meters in the 498-km long stretch that is set to become the highest rail track in the world, overtaking Chinas Qinghai-Tibet Railway.

The railways has received Rs 47.18 crore from the Indian Defence Ministry for the final location survey (FLS) of the 378-km Missamari-Tenga-Tawang line, the 227-km Pasighat-Tezu-Rupai line and the 249-km North Lakhimpur-Bame-Silapathar line after the Cabinet Committee on Security decided to take them up for construction.

A K Yadav, Chief Administrative Officer (Construction) of the Northeast Frontier Railway (NFR), said “We have set a target of December 2018 for the FLS for Pasighat-Tezu-Rupai line and December 2019 as the deadline for the other two. These three are extremely difficult terrains and we have to deal with unstable and high mountains. In places such as the Sela Pass in the Missamari-Tenga-Tawang line, it is 14,000 feet high”

We want the line to be operational through the year, despite the snow, said Yadav, adding that the three line are of 853 km with 58 km in Assam and 795 km in Arunachal Pradesh.

These four priority lines are part of the 14 strategic lines which were identified for development in November 2010, among the 28 railway lines in the China and Pakistan border areas approved in principle? by the Defence Minister in January 2010.

Drones Used to Inspect Construction Progress of Rail Projects, importantly Dedicated Freight Corridors

Extensive usage of unmanned aerial vehicles in different sections to successfully inspect the ongoing construction work on the railway’s broad gauge, mega rail Dedicated Freight Corridor project is already in action.

According to PTI, the drone was hired from a private operator and was used for three days. It covered a total of 98 km (about 61 miles) at a cost of about $45US/km (or $72/mile).

“We used a drone to ascertain the progress on the 42 km long track between Baghega to Srimadhopur in Rajasthan in the Western DFC and also the 56 km long line between Durgawati and Sasaram in Bihar,” DFC Managing Director Adesh Sharma said.

Pleased with the results, railway officials said that all ongoing construction projects will now be monitored through aerial survey. The public sector behemoth has also decided to use drones to assess the ground situation in the aftermath of train accidents, PTI reported.

Railway officials said that the Durgawati-Sasaram section that was surveyed by drone is complete, now awaiting safety clearance before being commissioned.

“It becomes easier and faster to prepare the status report of an ongoing project through drone. Field work can be monitored from the office using the drone footage,” said Sharma.

Indian Railways to use GIS portal, satellite imagery and GPS to monitor trains, manage its assets

In order to give a power boost to its services, Indian Railways is all set to use satellite imagery, GPS and GIS to monitor, maintain and manage its assets across the country.

There are two major projects that have been undertaken by the Indian Railways. One is mapping of the entire railway asset infrastructure – which is in two phases; the first is the mapping of the entire track network in the country and in the second phase is mapping of railway land and other assets along the tracks, the Ministry of Railways said in a statement.

Elaborating on this, Sanjay Das Additional Member Railway Board (Computerization and Information Systems), former MD CRIS said earlier in a briefing, “we are working in-house for the mapping of the data and have developed a GIS module for this. Under this, the track maintenance trolleys are being fitted with GPS chips and as the trolley moves, the track gets mapped.

The land and asset mapping exercise will help the Railways majorly to identify encroachments, as well as enable Railways to keep a tab on them and use for future planning exercise.

An MoU has been signed between ISRO and Centre for Railway Information System (CRIS) to develop this application. In this application land plans of Indian Railways will be available for viewing overlaid on satellite imagery. The INR 380-million asset mapping project was started in April 2017 when the railway ministry signed an agreement with Indian Space Research Organisation.

Das further said, “We are collaborating with NRSC for this project where they have provided us with Cartosat imagery and Bhuvan data for making the maps. In addition, we are also flying drones to map the tracks. However, I must admit that the progress is a bit slow as we are doing it all in-house. We can expedite it with better interaction with the private industry.”

The other important project that the Railways is working on is the real-time tracking of trains. Under this, NavIC devices will be installed in the entire fleet of about 12,000 locomotives to locate each train accurately. Railways is working with ISRO on this project. This data will be put into the Railways control office application through which it will be disseminated on a real-time basis to all passengers.

“This application will be hugely beneficial to keep a check on the safety aspect. Once the exact location of the train is determined, we can take advanced measures; rectify the problem area to avert any mishaps. The technology will also be used to give warning at unmanned level crossings,” Das said.

Railways is also thinking of 3D mapping of all the stations. Under this project six stations have been chosen as pilots. Here also NRSC is involved and they have mapped two stations including Varanasi and New Delhi. Once the 3D mapping is complete, passengers will have an application through which they will be able to visualize the entire station in 3D and thus locate any services at the stations. Here too, we hope that the private players will play an important role in the coming times.

Private sector will play a very important role. Giving more stress on this, Das said, “They should work as a knowledge partner with the government — GTC (Government to Citizen sphere) — so that the problem of delivering to citizens can be solved and they have better access to services ranging from ticketing, logistics, subsidies and schemes. Moreover, the services are better targeted towards the citizens.”

The Indian Railways has entered into contracts with many private providers of geospatial services. They are using drones and radars for mapping of railway assets and tracks. These are contracted through tenders.

Various Challenges for UAS adoption in India

There are certain challenges ranging from policies, market and operations which are encumbering the progression of UAS use in India. Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has issued draft guidelines on UAS titled “Requirements for Operation of Civil Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS)”. The intention is to execute a regulatory framework that can encourage the commercialization of drones in a diverse field. The policy is still waiting for approval.

Though, there is an existing policy as well which classifies drones in various categories and implement the course of action accordingly. As per the existing policy, application is based on the weight of the drone classified as micro which weighs less than 2 kgs and mini that weighs more than 2 kgs. The classification is based on Maximum Take-off Weight classification. Drones in India can only be flown up to 200ft Above Ground Level(AGL). This policy restricts the application mainly in power and utilities where the height of the tower is 400 feet AGL.

Apart from policies, market scenario imposes another challenge. Drone market is still burgeoning in India. Companies involved in UAS market are still focusing on primary applications such as real-time monitoring which involves communicating information in real-time. Exploring AI, AR/VR, IoT and 3D modeling are still waiting to be explored.

How to overcome

Drones have great potential and to utilize the potential to its fullest, India needs to overcome challenges. For policy relaxation, report by FICCI and EY says that “Categories beginning from mini UAS are required to meet all operational and mandatory equipment requirements. Given that 2 kg payload is lesser side, it would benefit to have another category between the micro and mini categories so as to broaden the scope of activities and also save on the restrictive mandatory requirements with respect to the classifications”

“Government should also look at creating a separate class of UAS for research and development purposes. Experimental and under-development technologies do not always fall under previously established norms and will require a special class permitting operations’’, mentions the report. This will enable local development and testing of unmanned systems and promote indigenous research and manufacturing.

For market challenges, an online portal for applications and approvals would make the process more efficient and transparent, thereby generating more interest and encouraging more usage, suggests the report. The government needs to relook at the proposed procedure of issuance of Unmanned Aircraft Operators Permit specified in the draft DGCA circular. Attention to training, licensing and inductive environment for private players also needs consideration. The government should attract and promote foreign direct investment in order to supplement domestic capital, technology and skills, for accelerated economic growth.