Rail Industry Focus


Demand for the unmanned

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Feb/March 2015

What is the future for the use of unmanned flying drones on the railway? Adam Hewitt reports.

Network Rail has awarded a framework contract to four companies to use drones to perform infrastructure inspections and land surveys.

Network Rail itself avoids the word ‘drone’, believing it to have negative military connotations, instead saying that the four companies will offer ‘remotely operated aerial vehicle’ (ROAV) services.

The companies on the three-year national framework agreement are Cyberhawk, AM-UAS, Resource Group and Richard Allitt Associates.

Drones are sometimes seen as a panacea for a whole host of rail problems, and indeed Arup’s influential ‘Future of Rail 2050’ horizon-scanning report last year foresaw a rail network where drones were commonplace in maintenance, surveying, security, design, data-gathering and a whole host of other uses.

That drew a furious response from the RMT union, keen to safeguard its members’ jobs from these future drone workers, calling Arup’s forecast “dangerous nonsense straight out of some barmy work of science fiction” that “could only have been cooked up by someone miles out of touch with reality”.


This initial Network Rail contract, awarded in January, has more limited aspirations, focusing on, for example, inspections and on the use of the flying machines to capture detailed photography and Lidar data as part of the ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services) programme to improve business intelligence and asset data.

RTM has covered ORBIS in detail before, so readers will know that among its ambitions is the creation of a detailed 3D digital model of the entire railway network, which can then be linked with geo-tagged asset information and used in augmented reality apps and much else besides. This is, in effect, BIM moved out of the world of construction and project management, and into the world of everyday operations and maintenance.

The Rail Infrastructure Network Model (GEO-RINM), which will be exhaustively refreshed every five years, has been using data gathered by helicopter, but drones could be a much cheaper way of doing the same thing.

Drones could also help reduce the amount of working at height required by Network Rail staff and contractors, for example when inspecting structures.


Network Rail spokesman Dan Donovan said bigger changes are on the horizon too, telling RTM: “We would like to bring this service in-house. We don’t own any UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) or pilots; at the moment, we’re subcontracting it out to these four [companies]. They know we would like to bring it in-house eventually, and we are working with them to see what is the best way of doing that.

“Instead of using a helicopter to do these jobs, which is incredibly expensive per hour, we could turn it around in an hour – send up ‘one man in a van’ with a UAV to get the job done. It’s quicker, cheaper and safer. It’s something we’d love to do in the near future.”

 Craig Roberts, Cyberhawk CEO, said: “This contract underlines the huge benefits of information provided by ROAVs in complex industrial settings. Network Rail recognised the potential for this technology several years ago and have 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.”

‘Perfect for any rail site’

Justin Pringle, drone development manager at heliguy.com, is an expert at the amateur and individual flyer end of the market, as opposed to those used in the defence industry and police drones.

He said: “Using DJI Inspire 1 [a new drone just coming onto the market, costing a relatively affordable £1,800 to £2,500], we can take a 4K [high-definition] camera up, which is on the rig already. It’s got a flat lens, we can fly for 15 minutes and send live broadcasts back down to a base station. So it’s perfect for any rail site: nobody’s at risk, but you can feed out live back to headquarters.

“As soon as one person comes in and proves they can save someone a big lump of money on an inspection, it’s going to go hammer and tongs: it’s going to go crazy.”

 Regulation and approvals

Discussing the regulatory aspects, Pringle said: “If you want to get on a rail site, you need the correct authorisations in terms of health and safety; the flying world doesn’t address that yet. That is one area where we’re pushing hard. We speak to the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) regularly, whether it’s through the pilots we deal with or not.

“There were 200 authorised pilots a year ago; there’s now 517 authorised pilots who can get permissions to fly. But if you look at that list, there’s only about 20 or 30 companies that employ more than two people. So from our perspective, there’s a distinct lack of scalability and scope.”

Network Rail issued a safety bulletin 18 months ago, before the new framework was formalised, saying: “Unmanned aerial aircraft operations must not be permitted to operate either on our behalf (e.g. through contractors/sub-contractors) or directly by Network Rail employees without a safe method of work being first agreed/approved by the air operations team (who will gain the necessary internal approvals).”

But Howard Naylor, national aerial survey specialist at Network Ops Delivery Services – Air Operations, did say: “Unmanned aerial aircraft provide Network Rail with some potentially exciting opportunities for reducing cost/risk and improving efficiency. It should be noted however that in the UK, there are significant regulatory and safety implications which need to be assessed before we can safely use/introduce this technology over or near our railway infrastructure.”

 Dawlish -drone photo


The simplest approvals and exemptions from the CAA relate to sub-7kg flying classes, but Pringle suggested that most inspection drones would normally weigh about 9kg, more if the rig had a thermal camera, a multi-spectral and a good photographic camera mounted at once.

But he added: “When is it commercial, and when is it not? If you do anything for commercial gain, you have to have the appropriate permissions to fly [as opposed to hobbyists who do not]. However, if you are already working for Network Rail, does that mean you don’t need permissions because it’s private land and you have the authority to do it? The [drone] industry at the moment is permissive-led, but ultimately the rail industry is insurance-led and liability-led.”

He added: “The easiest win in the world  would be an automated inspection of the track before people are allowed near the track. That would be a win on the day, because it’s a 10-minute flight before anyone was even allowed down. Safety and cost: it touches both. For a two-man set-up, which should be natural and the minimum requirement for a safety job, which would incorporate either an inspector and a flyer or a cameraman and a flyer, you’re talking about £1,500 a day. So from a Network Rail perspective, it’s still way cheaper than hiring a helicopter, which doesn’t do the same distances.

“From our perspective, we know there’s a lot of value in bringing it in-house. However, who wants to be on the front page of the Daily Mail if it goes wrong?”


Although Pringle’s company has focused on broadcast work recently, the sector is gearing up for more work in the industrial-commercial world, and transport in particular.

He said: “There’s a distinct lack of commercial ventures that actually have the scalability to do the geographics of the UK. It tends to be a couple of guys in one location: they can’t do Aberdeen and London. The Network Rail infrastructures can handle that, but they need to then work out a set of guidelines that they find appropriate to implement across the whole board.

“Their biggest problem, which they’ve probably already foreseen, is how do you implement a technology that doesn’t have any real guidelines to it? It’s not like you’re going to look for a CE mark and it’s been through testing and everything else, which you can do with an item in a toolkit. With a drone, they’re going to have to look at risk assessment for everything: what happens if it does go wrong, or hits a train, or gets in the way of a contact?”

 Pringle suggested that consultants and experts from the giant companies – such as BAE, Qinetic and Selex Galileo – are keen to work with the rail industry, though suggested that their typical costs are going to be much higher.

“Their philosophy and remit for drones is from the defence industry down, whereas this is from the toy industry up.

“Many people in the industry will start to look at this and think ‘I don’t want to lose my work to a drone’, and they will evolve their skillsets to involve drones as well.

“The utopian view for me would be this: in five years’ time, there won’t be one project management team on the rail tracks without a drone. That’s my view. It’s only a matter of time before the contractors work this out.”

One of the most visible uses of a drone on the rail network so far was after the Dawlish track collapse in early 2014, when a drone monitored the rebuilding of the sea wall destroyed by the storms, producing a fantastic video in the process:

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