Drone4Rail for Plain Track


Project information

  • Acronym: D4R-PT
  • Drone4Rail for Plain Track
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) uses for linear railway inspection
  • Sector: Infrastructure Subsystem - Track Experts Group
  • Project start date: 03/02/2022
  • Project duration: 36 months
  • Project director: Christian Chavanel
  • Project manager: Jesús Palma
  • Status: ongoing project

Project description

The use of drones worldwide has increased rapidly over the last few years due to progress in the miniaturisation of the components. Current models have a higher range of autonomy and are therefore more powerful. Some years ago, simple cameras comprised a drone’s main equipment, but they can now not only carry high-end camera equipment or thermographic cameras, but also sensors and measurement equipment. For general purposes, they can withstand a range of weather conditions, including wind, low temperatures and moderate rain or snow.

Currently, rail inspection tasks often involve the use of dedicated vehicles or converted road vehicles that require a railway track to operate, sometimes diminishing the capacity of the line. In other cases, it is necessary for personnel to be inside the rail corridor to perform visual inspections, increasing the risk of accidents, or to perform inspections in hard-to-reach areas (bridges or catenaries), where there is a high risk of falling.

For these purposes, drones are a tool that show great promise. The use of drones for railway inspections can greatly enhance safety in several ways, allowing infrastructure managers (IMs) to reduce the previously mentioned risks to almost zero and to maximize line capacity. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) has the advantage of being air-borne, and by utilising Global Navigation Satellite Systems, the UAV can fly above the railway track to capture observational data.

The use of drones or UAV also shows great potential for railways in terms of security (preventing vandalism and theft, and for initial support after derailments or chemical spills), as well as for optimising maintenance, vegetation control and the efficiency of inspections.

The data captured can be compared to previous inspections of the track infrastructure and surroundings. This enables automated monitoring of the changes occurring over time using smart analytics without significant investment in resources and inspections being required. This software technology will make it possible for defects to be automatically recognised thanks to the precision of defect dimension measurements increasing. Proper criteria are needed for the definition of field activities with the aim of optimising the amount of data recorded during the inspection. Methods for storing, managing and analysing this data also needs to be addressed.

Thus, in the domain of periodic plain track inspections, the use of UAV seems a promising system. UAV will help in assisting the transition to autonomous railway inspections, especially where these are conducted in remote areas. The deployment of UAV will create an alternative remote railway track inspection tool and removes the necessity for additional safety training and human resources.

For a legal framework, the group takes the European [EASA- European Aviation Safety Agency] and national regulations that are relevant for the use of drones in the railway environment into account.

The experiences will be used to define the current potential and limits of this method, which will lead to the creation of a technical report and a new IRS.

Project objectives

The main objectives of the project are:

  • To define current drone use and the main technical aspects for linear railway and facility inspections.
  • To analyse current regulation and, in cooperation with the European Aviation Safety Agency and the different National Aviation Authorities, develop a variant of PDRA-G03 specifically aimed at long-range railway inspections to enable the development of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.
  • To conduct an experimental operation on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (drones) under different climatic/geographical conditions and in different use cases.
  • To define the key recommendations on hardware, software, data management, analysis, and any other related issues.
  • To define a set of guidelines which includes the main benefits and limitations of the use of drones, as well as to provide an economic report on the cost-benefit analysis related to the inclusion of drones, within IM maintenance structures, for inspecting assets and tracks.

The major benefits are:

    • An increase in the level of safety during railway inspection.
    • An increase in the efficiency of the inspection tasks.
    • A maximisation of line capacity.

This project will take advantage of information from the previous project Harmonized methodology for drone/UAV use for bridge inspection.

Project members


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Wednesday 24 May 2023