Most commuters are familiar with Network Rail, but many would be surprised to hear that the UK’s rail infrastructure owner has an Air Operations department, which is in the vanguard of using drones and airborne sensors for critical maintenance and engineering tasks.

Network Rail has to monitor the nation’s tracks daily for faults, using thermal imaging and other techniques. Since 2014, the organisation has deployed drones – or more accurately, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – alongside traditional helicopters to put sensors in the sky.

The aim is to detect weaknesses in rails and dispatch maintenance teams before the track breaks and causes delays or accidents. Sometimes engineers have to deal with other problems that threaten the rail infrastructure, too, such as fallen trees, or animals or trespassers on the track.

Speaking at a recent Westminster eForum conference on UK drone policy, Rikke Carmichael, Head of Air Operations for Network Rail, said, “It was recognised early on that there is a huge opportunity for us to utilise this new technology.

“We do a lot of surveying with drones. We have an internal group of drone operators that we are slowly but surely building up, and we currently have a fleet of 50 drones that we use for different tasks.

“We also have a framework of commercial operators that we utilise for air tasks that are perhaps above the capability of our current internal operators, or if they are to do with sensors or equipment that we don’t have ourselves.”

Sensor-packed drones don’t just help engineers monitor the network from above; they also serve another useful function, explained Carmichael. “We are very keen to keep all of our employees safe and it is a dangerous environment to be in working on the tracks with trains going past, sometimes at more than 100 miles an hour, so anything that we can do to get people away from that, we do. Drones play a very big part in that.”

Despite the advantages of using UAVs, managing drone operations internally is a challenge, especially for a company that is primarily concerned about what happens at ground level. “Introducing a different element such as air travel has been interesting and we have had to change certain Network Rail standards, which are the standards that we work to everyday and that all our suppliers work to as well,” she said.

There are other challenges: “What has become clear is that with the growth of drones, both our internal ones and those that come from our framework companies, we need to know where they are and keep track of what they do.

“And, more importantly, we also want to ensure that it’s only people that are supposed to fly over our infrastructure that are doing that. We are looking at this internally to see if we can come up with something that, basically, is a flight management system.”

Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management [UTM] is a complex area, especially in the crowded skies above cities. “When it comes to policing the air space around our infrastructure, we obviously don’t have any authority to do that,” explained Carmichael.

“There are people out there that would like to damage the infrastructure, potentially, but we can’t necessarily put a protective zone around all 20,000 kilometres of track that we have in this country; that is obviously unrealistic. But we are very interested in seeing what potentially can be done for us to ensure that we keep [the network] safe.”

But whatever the outcome of that research, drones are “here to stay”, said Carmichael. “We’re very interested in developing autonomous flights. I personally would like to see us having self-contained systems around the country that we can centrally deploy if there is an incident.”

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