Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland and Wales, has announced drones are set to play a central role in its assets management.
The route structures asset management team is trialling the use of drones to inspect large structures in a safer and more cost efficient way.
The vehicles are being used to get a closer look at five arch viaducts on the route, including the Grade 1 listed, 28-span Royal Border Bridge in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland.
Since 2017 the structures team has been working alongside AECOM consulting engineers, Network Rail’s Air Operations team and UAV specialists Cyberhawk to carry out the inspections, gaining a panoramic bird’s eye view of the structures.
With an increasing number of structural assessments, including many arch viaducts, the team had identified a need for a more efficient inspection method to supplement the more traditional access techniques typically used.
“UAVs are commonly used in other industries such as oil and utilities to inspect their structures, such as pylons and oil rigs. We thought ‘why not try them out?’” said Terry Donaldson, scheme project manager at Network Rail.
“As well as being cost effective, this innovation has reduced the need for possessions, track access and roped access, reducing safety risk. The quality of the information our asset engineers have received has also been much better than what can normally be produced with standard inspection techniques.”
The high-definition images captured by the UAVs will be examined by asset managers. Previously, photographs would be taken by the engineer as they carried out the inspection at height – abseiling down the structure, often in the dark and poor weather – with views limited to where the person could reach and see.
Sam De’Ath, asset engineer of structures at Network Rail, added: “It seemed a good idea for us to start unleashing UAVs on some of our bridges. They’ve turned out to be an excellent tool for the inspection of arch viaducts in particular, such that further UAV inspections are now being planned.
“Aerial inspections can’t fully replace an engineer with a hammer – some degree of tactile inspection is still needed – but we’re now able to use the better imagery to find areas of concern and target those.”