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Drone technology is taking rail assessment to a higher level

When rail contractors are faced with the prospect of carrying out regular maintenance of transport networks, they are posed with many challenges in terms of both identification and inspection over a wide surface area.

With rail lines spanning the length of the country across potentially unstable environments such as coastal regions, the need for accurate and safe identification systems has never been more apparent.

Earlier this year, Network Rail employed an increasingly disruptive technology to help assess resilience work on the Devon railway, including Exeter and Newton Abbott. The technology in question was, of course, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, equipment that can operate under varying degrees of autonomy.

For many sectors, mobile mapping units that scan and render our world digitally are able to be strapped to the back of ‘on the ground’ teams, providing cost-saving benefits in projects that are easily accessed on foot.

Gradual game-changer

Over the last 10 years, however, drone units have become increasingly deployed in 3D mapping projects.

Reducing the ‘on the ground’ team numbers and bringing land, sea and air mobile mapping advantages, UAVs have been a game-changer for the industry. Governmental contractors, transport operators and private institutions are now able to accurately predict and monitor environmental change at a far greater scope.

“Airborne mapping technology has the potential to scan landscapes at a depth and scope previously inaccessible to the human footprint”

When it comes to potentially unstable landscapes, such as bridges with weak structural integrity or coastal regions with landslide awareness, UAVs are crucial for safety, visibility and future planning.

Take, for example, the recent collapse of a bridge in Barrow upon Soar (pictured below), which passes over a busy London train route for commuters across the Midlands and the North of England.

CREDIT Leicester Mercury_Barrow upon Soar bridge collapse Aug 2016 1

CREDIT Leicester Mercury_Barrow upon Soar bridge collapse Aug 2016 1

Source: Leicester Mercury

Residents had raised their concerns for years over an obvious need for repair work, and while it can be hard to point the finger of blame over ‘natural’ changes in environment, the deployment of mobile mapping technology can help transport operators and environmental agencies assess the integrity of such bridges far more accurately, saving time, money and unnecessary disruption in the process.

Looking ahead

Of course, on the whole, rail networks are some of the most accurately predicted transport systems in the country.

At present, operators employ train-mounted 3D mapping systems, offering high-precision geometric and semantic information for rail operators, utility companies and environmental agencies to safely interact with the surrounding landscape. This system is now enhanced with the introduction of UAVs, reducing the need for a pilot to have ‘line of sight’ of a mapping unit or any direct control through pre-programming.

Pods are placed along rail lines, with multiple sensors interacting with the airborne unit to detect topographical changes. This allows periodic surveys with photogrammetry, thermal, laser scanning and hyperspectral data to be collected without disruption to rail services.

While many unique of-the-moment challenges can occur when responding to environmental changes, airborne mapping technology has the potential to scan landscapes at a depth and scope previously inaccessible to the human footprint.

New drone technology is therefore helping businesses and institutions operate with far greater foresight, lending a scientific hand in ensuring a safe and profitable transport network for everyone.

Dr Graham Hunter is executive chairman of 3D Laser Mapping

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