Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones, are making a significant contribution to a number of industries thanks to their versatile flight capabilities and the high-resolution imagery and data they can capture. This quality output provides a unique aerial overview, capturing a rich source of actionable data to improve the planning and monitoring of new projects and inspection services.
However, very few industries fully understand how to apply this technology to maximise the potential benefits, and even fewer have developed a professional and commercial service for the industrial application of UAVs.
As the regulatory and operational rules around flying drones become more flexible, the rail industry is looking to enhance safety programmes with these futuristic eyes in the sky.
In December 2014, Cyberhawk Innovations won a place on Network Rail’s framework which allowed the operation of drones across the rail network for asset inspection and survey work. Cyberhawk, the world leader in inspection and survey using UAVs, and a pioneer in converting drone captured data into powerful asset management information, had to comply with strict Network Rail safety requirements, amongst other high standards concerning its operations, in order to be considered.
Cyberhawk created the UAV industrial inspection market and, since the company’s inception in 2008, it has been utilising this technology to conduct close inspections of live and difficult to reach structures worldwide, as well as complex survey jobs. The company’s team of highly skilled engineers and pilots has already fundamentally changed inspection and survey in the oil and gas and utilities sectors through the use of UAVs, and in recent years has further developed its solution to begin transforming the renewables and rail sectors in the same way.
With light-form industrial grade equipment and professionally trained operators, UAVs are now capturing high-resolution imagery to allow detailed engineering analysis of structures such as overhead line equipment and bridges. UAVs also provide aerial imagery and topographic survey data for the planning and design of new projects within the rail sector. Based on Cyberhawk’s successful operational record, the company holds a rare and revered Operating Safety Case from the CAA giving permission to fly within 10m of people, vehicles and structures not under the pilot’s control. This permission is crucial in order to conduct inspection and land survey work in congested areas.
Traditionally, the inspection method for high volume, low height rail infrastructure is typically ground-based inspection crews working under line possession, often at night. Using UAVs to carry out visual inspection reduces the need for interruption to rail services, and also provides detailed imagery from an elevated viewpoint which can identify defects that may not be visible from ground level.
For low volume, high rail infrastructure such as viaducts and bridges, the inspection method is usually rope access, scaffolding or an elevated platform. The use of UAVs to inspect these structures saves time and costs, and removes inspection personnel from the inherent risk of working at height.
Due to the development of software and processes for flight-planning and data manipulation, this technology is increasingly being used by inspection professionals around the world, providing rapid, cost-effective and high quality data. The rail sector has particularly embraced the safety and efficiency benefits on offer, with UAVs minimising the need for trackside work and possessions, meaning work can be completed in daylight hours and around train schedules.
These benefits also extend to land survey projects, where UAVs are used to provide geo-referenced orthophotos, topographic data, and aerial oblique, spherical and panoramic imagery, providing at least the same, if not better, data than current techniques. Importantly, UAVs have the ability to cover far more than 100 hectares in a day, which is far more efficient than traditional ground based survey techniques. Cyberhawk also has an Extended Visual Line of Sight permission form the CAA, allowing up to 1.5km of operation compared to the standard limit of 500m.
As well as the time, cost and safety improvements incurred, Cyberhawk customers also benefit from its proprietary cloud-based asset management system iHawk, which is designed to improve the efficiency of data analysis.
iHawk is revolutionising the conversion of drone-captured data into powerful asset information, allowing users to intuitively access the valuable inspection information captured by UAVs. The software delivers the data captured from Cyberhawk’s drones (as well as other sources as required) through a map based interface, with asset status clearly displayed using a traffic light colour coded matrix. iHawk shows the full condition of the assets, for example overhead line equipment and complete lines in the rail sector, which in turn helps to improve asset management and maintenance decision making.
For companies such as Network Rail, the data captured and collated will allow operators to improve track maintenance and boost field worker efficiency. Working at height can also be dramatically reduced as maintenance is then only required once UAVs have identified that this is the case.
A welcome lift at Deptford Creek
In August 2015, Cyberhawk conducted a full visual inspection of Deptford Creek lifting bridge. The findings of this study resulted in fears over the fate of the iconic landmark being quelled, after rail authorities announced it would no longer be demolished.
With no reports on record to indicate previous maintenance inspections, an understanding of what lay at the top of the structure was critical and, due to the unknown, Network Rail’s priority was for the inspection to be executed safely and efficiently.
With Deptford Creek being more than 50 years old, and the railway still being operational, it would not have been safe for a rope access team to carry out the workscope.
Progressive drone technology meant that Cyberhawk’s team of inspection engineers were able to carry out this project in a single day, without the need to stop operations. The inspection was completed in a more cost-effective way than traditional methods, with higher resolution imagery being captured and, most importantly, less time spent on the ground which meant the safety of personnel was improved.
Another major benefit is that rail inspections can be undertaken from outside Network Rail’s boundary, which meant the need for a trackside possession was eliminated.
Network Rail decided Cyberhawk was best suited to this particular project due to its Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) National Qualified Entity status, which means the team is able to certify its own pilots internally to CAA standards.
Just like operating a full-size aircraft, UAV operators in the UK need to be approved and certified by the CAA. As with any contractor it is important to check their insurances and ensure that appropriate risk assessments and method statements are prepared before any project. In addition to this, pilots need extensive training and qualifications to be able to safely and competently operate a UAV. Cyberhawk trains its pilots to four levels above the CAA minimum level, typically taking 18 months to achieve the top status which permits pilots to fly in an offshore environment.
Cyberhawk’s solution for Deptford Creek mitigated the need for a full site setup and meant operations could continue throughout the inspection, improving safety and saving time, with Network Rail reporting cost savings of up to £30,000.
Since completion of the Deptford Creek inspection, Network Rail has used the processed data in design meetings with engineers reaping the benefits. No longer just looking at flat CAD drawings, the engineers can access up to date, high resolution imagery and 3D data without the need to visit site, allowing for more informed decision making.
For Network Rail and Cyberhawk, the success didn’t end there. In December 2015 Network Rail won an internal innovation award for this project, shortly followed by a shortlisting for Cyberhawk in the 2016 UK Rail Industry awards in the Service Innovation category.
Network Rail’s framework agreement with Cyberhawk demonstrates confidence in UAV technology and recognition of the significant cost, time and safety benefits on offer. This technique is on path to become the go-to inspection and land survey method in the rail sector, keeping operators on the right side of the track.