EXCLUSIVE: On track with Network Rail’s drone division

NetworkRailDrone2

The benefits drones can bring into the vast majority of industries around the world is becoming more obvious, and Network Rail is just one example of how a major company is utilising drones to its advantage.

Looking at how they can reduce risk to humans, while ensuring those jobs are not sacrificed for what technology can do, Network Rail has put drone technology to use into its work for a variety of uses, primarily for track and other forms of inspection.

Paul Lindup, project lead within the Air Operations team at Network Rail, told Commercial Drone Professional about the relationship between drones and the firm.

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He described how drones had first been implemented around four or five years ago as a means of exploring what other options aviation could offer away from the traditional helicopter.

A framework was then set up around that time to provide the company’s network with specialist aerial survey work nationwide, something which has continued until now.

However, as both the drone industry and the company progress the firm is now looking at a new framework which will be going live in the near future to increase its coverage.

IMAGE CREDIT: RUAS

Network Rail also runs an in-house drone operation which has been trial for the last two years. The in-house operation commenced in December 2017 and has only just come to the end of the trial period.

The program was set up to train and equip Network Rail employees with the expertise and the ability to use and apply drone technology in their everyday work.

According to both Rikke Carmichael, helicopter pilot by trade and the head of air operations, and Paul Lindup, the framework set up and in-house operations have been designed to work hand-in-hand to allow staff to realise from the advantages drones can bring without needing to fully train a drone squad and have them spread out around the country.

The in-house team allows Network Rail to quickly and efficiently deploy drones if and when they are needed, while the framework means the company has the capability to call upon specialist drone service providers around the country to complete what work is needed to the highest level.

Commenting on the in-house work, Lindup elaborates: “It has been going very good but it is not going to replace the framework, it is there to supplement the framework and work alongside it.”

“So a small number of employees will carry on doing drone surveys or incident response with drones but it is the framework that will still be carrying out the complicated and complex project work where we need professional companies that can supply us with an end product which we necessarily would not be able to do within the company.”

The reason for this is that a specialist team completing outsourced work can offer benefits of a higher-level than operating completely in-house across the board.

Lindup explains why: “At the moment, our own drones are all off-the-shelf DJI products so they are reasonably inexpensive to keep costs down because it is still that learning phase for ourselves.”

“This is opposed to the framework companies that have spent large amounts of money on specialist aerial survey equipment for us and that is obviously not just for us, but for a number of other customers they do work for.”

He continues: “They have the more complex, extensive and more accurate equipment and that is the main benefit of having framework companies over and above our own drones. Plus, they come to us as experienced pilots and operators and companies whereas our own internal pilots are doing it as an additional tool to their toolbox.”

Aside from drones, it is aerial work in general that has, more so in recent years, added a new dimension to what Network Rail has to offer.

Across the company’s plus 20,000km worth of tracks, both drones and a helicopter are used to aid the teams on the ground.

A lot of the inspection work is what Rikke Carmichael describes has “preventative work” which sees the team go out with a variety of sensors and cameras that can identifies different things on the track close up.

The teams also have access to a thermal camera that can detect heat. This can be used to see where there are faults which can be rectified before it becomes an issue where trains have to be delayed or cancelled and lines have to be closed.

She explains: “We do also fly out when there are incidents, for example a couple of weeks ago there was a small landslide down in the southern part of England so we sent our helicopter down to that to take pictures of that and that helped our engineers look at where the starting point of a landslide is and how to go about securing that site and again, trying to prevent anything happening in the future.”

Commenting on how the drones and helicopter work hand in hand, Carmichael says how having the option of both means they can provide the right equipment and technology to align with a customer’s exact requirements.

On how drones have added a new aspect to the company’s work, she responds: “That can have to do with where you’re going to, the accessibility, it depends on what kind of imagery and data that the customer is interested in.

“It depends on the various sensors and that is really where the expertise of the air ops team comes in as well because as a request comes in from a customer we will make sure that we understand their requirements and we will help them decide which, of the tools we have, whether a drone or a helicopter, that can give them the outcome they are looking for.”

Despite the benefits the air operations team has seen from drones, Carmichael explains that an increase in tech and ease of drone use does not necessarily mean the actual rate of implementation has also expanded quite as rapidly.

While there are numerous advantages to using drones, they will never be able to replace the need for helicopetrs completely.

She discusses: “I think yes we will of course be continuing to use the drones because they’re not going to go away and both Paul and I can both see a future where drones are being morphed into more autonomous vehicles that can be used again in a different way than what we use drones for today, but then there will always be a need for what the helicopter can provide to us.

“Even purely from a weight perspective as well, at least the way the sensors are today it just depends on the development of technology, the development of drones and the development of sensors and cameras that we use.”

Paul Lindup adds: “Weather plays a part as well because that what Rikke mentioned down in Kent was just before Storm Eric and there was no way we could have flown a drone in that but the helicopter was perfect because it can withstand higher wind and can fly higher so it wasn’t effected by the weather.”

Looking ahead, it is clear speaking to the air operations team within Network Rail that as things stand, it is autonomy which holds the key to unlocking the next level of work.

Autonomy, alongside work which can be carried out beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), will open the door across a number of industries to drones leading the way in a lot of work that goes on and will help assist already specialised work that has not been seen before.

Carmichael agrees: “I definitely think that drones are here to stay and I know that we will be looking at autonomous vehicles and when we get to the point where the industry can do BVLOS that will also be important for us as well. Those two things are definitely areas that we are interested in because we can see a use for this everywhere on the network.”

“I think without being too controversial, I think drones are a stepping stone into the autonomous world and I am hoping it will happen sooner rather than later because I think it will help us with safety and it will help with, from our perspective, pushing training and safety standards,” she adds.

Not only do drones allow the firm to be more efficient and operate more effectively across the nation, Lindup and Carmichael were keen to stress how they also increase safety across the network.

They said the main reason for deploying drones as being to try and reduce the amount of time employees needed to be on the track. Having the option to take someone off the track and give them a drone to do the same work with means that, as a company, Network Rail has reduced the risk to that person.

Of course though, it is not as simple as just handing a drone to an employee and getting them to do the same job from a distance, training and maintaining a high level of competency is vital.

Paul Lindup explains how they do that: “Previously we have used two separate NQEs to provide standard NQE cleared training and then, we have an additional number of layers before they are let live on our track.”

He continues: “Most pilots when they come out of a standard NQE they are going off and doing low level, low risk aerial work. Whereas we are operating in a safety critical environment so we need to make sure that what they have learnt is then going to be put into practice around their environment because every drone pilot that we’ve got, well most of them, have got a different background employment wise.”

We’ve put it to them to go away and have six hours to practice flying, then they will be assessed, and if they pass the assessment they will then go live and there are certain levels of assessment throughout their career as a drone pilot so they’ve got to maintain hours over and above what the CAA require and also a twelve monthly check over and above what the CAA require.”

Lindup went on to confirm how the new framework will be designed to encompass this, as well devising  a new framework of training because, as a company, Network Rail wanted more bespoke training courses which are specific for what it is striving to do with the technology.

Incorporating training schemes and frameworks in the way Network Rail is, shows how, the company is putting drones on the front foot to enable growth and innovation.

It is also clear that drones can bring benefits alongside traditional methods such as having men on the ground or using helicopters but can go one step further in providing efficiency, an increase in safety and giving employees greater accessibility when working in challenging environments nationally.

Therefore, the next step for Network Rail is a combination of autonomy and BVLOS to take drone use to the next level and take another step in highlighting the benefits.

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Alex Douglas

The author Alex Douglas

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