Network Rail take to the skies to improve safety and performance on south western rail network

Network Rail take to the skies to improve safety and performance on south western rail network

Drone deployed to inspect overhead line equipment.(Network Rail Image)

The very first Network Rail drone survey on the south western rail route is taking place today to improve performance and safety across the network.

The drone will make its first flight today near Bournemouth to survey a trespass hotspot, looking to record anyone risking their lives on the train tracks. Any images of illegal trespassing will be passed to the British Transport Police.

Network Rail’s mobile incident officer, Peter Atkins, is the very first trained railway drone pilot on the route from Waterloo station to the south coast.  Peter had to complete extensive training with Essex Police before qualifying to fly.

He said:

“I’m delighted to be operating the first-ever railway drone flight in the region. The training was very thorough and often challenging, but completely worth the effort for the benefits this technology will bring.

“I’m really looking forward to using this drone to improve safety and journeys for passengers across the route.

The specially designed drone is equipped with a high-tech heat sensitive 4k camera to spot changes in temperature, helping identify people and potential damage to our infrastructure.

It will also allow inspections to be carried out by air without closing railway, improving performance and reliability. Using a drone also means we can reduce the number of times we are sending engineers onto the tracks, which improves safety.

South Western Railway managing director, Andy Mellors, said:

We welcome any initiative that can improve safety and performance.

“Trespassing on the railway network can have tragic consequences and causes unnecessary delays. I hope that the deployment of this new technology will discourage trespassing and reduce delays for passengers.”

The drone will fly up to 120 meters high at speeds of up to 50mph. The images it takes are displayed on the operator’s screen and recorded directly to a USB drive so they can then be immediately transferred to British Transport Police and other authorities as necessary.

How we use 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, our drones gather data, videos and images of railway infrastructure so we can better understand what the problem is and what repairs are needed.

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

Our drones – vital statistics

Weight – 7kg max weight allowed – about as heavy as a standard bowling ball

Range – permitted to fly up to 500 metres away from pilot (depending on weather conditions)

Flight – permitted to fly up to 400 feet high – slighter higher than St Paul’s Cathedral

Typical flight time before recharge – around 20 minutes

Crew – usually minimum of two. One pilot in command, and one observer/camera operator. Other missions may require more crew; spotters, engineers, aides and so on.

Camera – varies on mission and can include high-definition, 4K video imaging and high-resolution stills camera systems

Drone features:

Built-in Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) fencing – provides our pilots with up-to-date guidance on locations where flight is restricted by regulation or raised safety concerns. This includes restricted areas such as prisons, power plants and sensitive locations. The drone will not be able to fly into these areas, as if there is an invisible barrier or ‘forcefield’ in place

Built-in Return to Home (RTH) protocol – when activated, the drone automatically and safely returns to its launch site. RTH can be triggered if the transmitter signal becomes interrupted, it loses signal or when it’s running low on battery

Multiple motors and rotor blades – some of our drones have up to eight separate motors and can still fly on less if one were to fail or become defective mid-air.

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