Value drivers for Railways: avoid track possession. Count in days and not in weeks.

In Europe, Digital Railways has been a major focus of attention, with an objective to improve passenger experience but also competitivity vs other means of transport. In this context, a number of railway companies have started their “digitization from the air” and use drones as a tool to improve their efficiency and operations.

Value drivers

Avoid track possession

Traffic interruption impacting passenger service schedule is a major issue for rail operators. As a result, inspection of tracks and maintenance works take place during a string of relatively short timeslots spread over several weeks, when track possession does not impact customer service. In the extreme case of a busy underground metro network, those slots consist of approximately 3 hours at night.

Digitize from the air. Collect accurate, engineer-grade data on the network.

In an infrastructure business, knowing your asset, understanding the capex and opex required, is key. However, such information may not be available, nor complete. Infrastructure networks have been built over decades, by different teams in different regions using different tools. Today, using drones, images can be collected and processed in order to create a precise 3D digital modelling replica of the network, with the engineer-grade accuracy required for most business requirements.

Avoid exposing teams to works along the tracks.

Health and Safety can be a challenge when working along the tracks, or near hazardous equipment such as electrical substations. Remote-sensing de facto limits exposure to Health & Safety incidents.

De-risk schedule.

A side-effect of track possession and works spread over multiple short timeslots is the uncertainty over the works’ schedule, due to the unpredictability of events along tracks in service. When using drones, once the data is collected, the data analysis work is performed “off-track” and the uncertainties surrounding track possession no longer apply.

Existing main use cases

Ongoing use cases are focused on optimizing operations and maintenance:

  • Topographical surveys,
  • Maintenance and monitoring of the network,
  • Local inspection of sites,
  • Monitoring during the construction phase, and
  • Emergency or crisis situation monitoring.

Use Case: monitoring of vegetation over railtracks:  SNCF Réseau, AltaMetris, France

We experience it in autumn when leaves on the tracks cause delays. Vegetation near tracks must be managed. If not cut back, overgrown trees and shrubs could cover up signals – the traffic lights of the railway – and potentially cause an accident. Areas with embankments, level crossings, overhead line must be sufficiently clear of vegetation. Normally, a team of surveyors along the track would assess on a regular basis where vegetation must be managed and pruned. With a drone, the trackroad and the vegetation are digitized. The data is analysed, a 3D model is built and provide the exact, complete dataset of the vegetation along the tracks. Maintenance team performs its work where pre-identified and needed.

SNCF Réseau uses drones for its inspection, surveillance and maintenance work. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has increased the reliability and performance of the French railway network. The expertise which has been gained with drones is now available to serve company needs.

Altametris, a dedicated subsidiary, was created in March 2017 to serve SNCF Réseau as well as external customers.

For more information:

Use case: Survey the railway for regular maintenance or new construction

A survey of existing tracks was required in order to design a new line layout in Greater London. “The track access was very difficult – Thameslink and Gatwick Express trains run through there, and both of those run almost through the night, so the opportunity for possession was very difficult. They were looking at three to six months to actually get in and do those surveys, with a big knock-on delay to the programme.” To cut down the survey time, Plowman Craven used a drone taking around 5,000 photographs along a 500 m stretch of track, over about two days. The drone flew at a height of 20-25 m to capture its photographs, getting the 1-2 mm accuracy levels required. 

About Network Rail use of drones

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones, are used to survey the railway for regular maintenance or following an incident. Drones are a cost-effective solution for close-up inspections of difficult to access structures such as building roofs, bridges, communication masts and overhead wires. Carrying high-tech equipment, drones gather data, videos and images of railway infrastructure so teams can better understand what the problem is and what repairs are needed.

Carrying out inspections by air means teams can keep the railway open and our people safe – trains can continue to run which improves performance and reliability, and as engineers are not sent onto tracks, it also improves safety.

For more information:

Use Case: monitor and inspect tunnels during the construction phase: CROSSRAIL, UK.

Crossrail is the new 118-kilometre high frequency, high capacity railway for London and the South East. It is one of the largest railway construction programme currently ongoing in Europe and is due to open in December 2018, when it will be officially named the Elizabeth line.

The underground inspection of tunnels using drones has been successfully tested in the heart of London. The trial was carried out by a consortium of Hovering Solutions, Dragados and Geocisa. 

Main applications:

  • Underground surveys
  • Infrastructure inspection
  • High definition 3D-models generation
  • Object management and quality control
  • Health and Safety assessment and risk reduction

Railways Create Value for Drones: they have the safety culture and processes to develop new disruptive use cases

The railway industry in Europe has developed a deeply rooted culture of safety. This culture is shared with conventional manned aviation. We experience it in our daily lives and it is apparent in the comparative safety statistics published by the European Union:

Transport mode used Fatalities per billion passenger kilometres
Airline passenger 0.06
Railway passenger 0.10
Bus/ coach occupant 0.19
Maritime vessel occupant 0.27
Car occupant 2.67
Powered 2-wheelers 37.80

Sources: European Commission, DG Mobility and Transport/ European Railways Agency ERA, Statistical pocketbook 2016.

Railways have a very strong culture of safety and the risk management processes that underpin the outstanding results in the table. As a result, railways organizations have the ability to set-up drone operations in more challenging environments than standard scenarios and can be at the forefront of this disruptive innovation. The first illustration is their role in the development of beyond visual line of sight, or long-distance operations.

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