The power of drones is being harnessed across new industries every day. As drones become more affordable, we are seeing them used in industries from agriculture, to mail delivery, to insurance. Moreover, the number of industries utilising drone technology is set to rocket. Consulting group PwC predicted that by 2020 the global market for drone technology will reach $127 billion (in 2016 it was just £2 billion).
The railway industry is no different. In the last couple of years railway consultants and innovators have been working with drone technology experts to find drone powered solutions to some of the key challenges the railway industry faces today. And there are at least three key areas in which drone technology may have a significant impact in the industry.
1. Infrastructure monitoring
One way that drone powered solutions offer real value is that they can capture high-quality images from height. In fact, the quality of images that certain commercial drones can capture is so good that they can help to detect tiny deteriorations in infrastructure.
A recent study from engineers at the Bauhaus-Universität Weimar used drones to monitor the stability of retaining walls. With photogrammetry – the use of photography to measure the distance between objects – visual data captured by drones accurately detected deformations over time.
The ability of drones to capture detailed data about infrastructure in remote, difficult to access areas has significant benefits. Drone powered solutions can help reduce the risk, time, and cost of accessing difficult areas. Moreover, drones make it possible to get accurate data to support the intelligent management of remote infrastructure and increase the resilience and lifespan of the asset.
Passengers are often frustrated by intermittent phone and WiFi access on the train. This is a real issue for customer satisfaction in the railway industry. The problem of tunnels and long stretches of rail through remote regions make internet connectivity a serious challenge.
Could drone technology help? It may sound crazy but both Facebook and Google are researching the use of drones to increase WiFi connectivity around the world. And in 2015, the UK government began investigating the use of drones to follow trains and deliver targeted connectivity to passengers.
There are some logistical difficulties with the use of drones to increase connectivity. For example, the Civil Aviation Authority guidelines which limit commercial drones from flying within 50m of people, vehicles, and buildings, make the possibility of a drone flying alongside or behind a train problematic.
However, the drones that Facebook have been trialling fly at 60,000 to 90,000 feet – away from turbulence, storms, and commercial airliners.
In the continuing effort to improve connectivity for rail passengers, drones may yet be proven effective.
3. Accident investigation
Drones are increasingly being used in the investigation of rail accidents. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB), which looks into the causes of rail accidents, has been using drones for over a year to capture images of incidents, which can often be hard to reach by other means.
For the RAIB, drones offer a far cheaper alternative to helicopters, which were previously used in their operations. Drones also make it easier to access areas that would have been off-limits to helicopters, due their proximity to trees and overhead wires.
In accident investigations, drones have been used to capture visual, thermal, and multispectral data. Vitally, as well as capturing important data, drones also reduce the risks of unnecessarily bringing people into dangerous accident sites.
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