Train of thought: track maintenance takes to the skies


Train of thought: track maintenance takes to the skies

10 Mar 2015

FEATURE: Rail CONNECT magazine

Train of thought: track maintenance takes to the skies


Track maintenance. Possibly the two most dreaded words to be heard coming from the loudspeaker by passengers, inextricably linked as they are to delays and endless waiting. Why can’t they do it on bank holidays, they wonder. Why can’t they do the line work overnight when no one’s on the trains?

The truth is of course, there’s never a good time for track maintenance.  And yet it remains an essential part of a safe and efficient railway network, one of the safest such systems in Europe, as the UK network is now known. And it’s about to get even safer, thanks to a recent contract agreement between Network Rail and Cyberhawk Innovations, the world leader in aerial inspections and surveys using unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Along with three other unmanned aircraft suppliers, Cyberhawk has been tasked with inspections and surveys of everything from overhead line equipment and structures to tracks and embankments, by the company in charge of the UK’s rail infrastructure.

Using highly trained pilots and experienced inspection engineers and land surveyors, Cyberhawk provides detailed information to aid management decisions. More familiar with clients in the oil and gas industry, the company is breaking new ground with this three-year framework agreement, as the company’s CEO, Craig Roberts, explains:

“We’ve been using unmanned aircraft to provide high quality inspection data and land survey information to the oil and gas, renewables and utilities sectors since 2008, but this is our first framework contract in the infrastructure sector and we’re delighted to be involved.

“The scope of the contract includes general inspection and survey of railway infrastructure including overhead line equipment, structures and canopies, viaducts and bridges, and station roofs.”

Craig Roberts continues: “From a survey point of view, Cyberhawk could be requested to conduct topographic surveys for new stations and rail routes, and also carry out slope stability assessments, which involves generating what’s called a Digital Elevation Model (DEM)1, along with an orthophoto2 and a point cloud3, which allows for the creation of an extremely accurate, scaled 3D model of a rock face or slope.

“The benefits of using unmanned aircraft technology in this way are manifold. First there’s the safety aspect – UAS can reduce the need for trackside working, and allow hazardous areas with minimal ground access to be inspected easily, and without the need to spend long periods at a site. The cost savings are another major advantage – the use of UAS reduces the need to shut down sections of the track to allow engineer access.”

There are broader benefits to be gained as well, as Craig points out: “Viewing sites from an aerial perspective is a real game-changer, bringing new insights and improving decision-making. A high quality photographic record removes any subjectivity about the condition of an asset.

“Using UAS technology, scarce resources can be focused on asset maintenance rather than inspection,” he continues.

Clearly then, the Cyberhawk team is far from fazed by the challenge of a new sector. “Although the assets are different from those we’ve previously inspected and surveyed, in the last few years we’ve carried out more than 2,000 electricity tower inspections for energy companies, such as SSE, ESB & RWE, conducted hundreds of topographic surveys and undertaken over 8,000 commercial UAS flights.”

Craig summarises: “This contract underlines the potentially significant safety and efficiency benefits of information provided by UAS in complex industrial settings. Network Rail recognised the potential for this technology several years ago and has been very forward thinking in setting up this national framework agreement. Cyberhawk’s remote aerial surveys and inspections will help to reduce the need for working at height and minimise disruption to customers.”

Link to original Rail Connect article

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