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Network Rail Thameslink programme harnesses innovation with its latest aerial project

The Thameslink programme at Network Rail’s latest project pledges to drive innovation and make commuters’ lives easier with cutting-edge aerial surveying technology.

In an interview with RTM, project sponsor Paul Ashman talks about how the programme uses the Vogel R3D UAV drone to survey its section of track in an effort to cut costs and line closures on the Thameslink networks.

Redhill Survey Drones (3)

With more and more different types and capacities of rolling stock running through the Thameslink routes, challenges arise that may sometimes require a closure of the track for infrastructure changes to be made.

"Obviously on the Thameslink programme we wanted to find a way to absolutely minimise disruption to passengers, and I was keen to find a solution which would allow us to keep the line open while surveying for turn-around points for the new longer Thameslink Class 700 trains which the new type of drone gave us," Ashman said.

To be able to complete the works, Network Rail would need to book out a ‘possession’ of a section of track; potentially leading to all of the issues Ashman outlined. Areas where the project has been used previously, including East Croydon and Three Bridges, the bustling local area has meant that cordoning off a section of track could lead to major disruption due to the sheer amount of traffic going through the stations, especially during busier hours.

“One of the areas where there’s always a challenge on the railway is on the possession planning side of things. You have a lot of different competing stakeholders with different interests, so generally gaining access in the first place to an operating railway can be quite challenging. It’s very difficult to get on site in a short space of time, so you end up having to talk about long-term planning.”

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One of Network Rail’s solutions to this dilemma is the use of drones. The Vogel R3D is able to take ultra-high-resolution imagery of lines from a 25m working height, and— with a 100-megapixel camera to boot— can deliver images with a sub-5mm accuracy, all without the need to send crews out on the line.

The new technology pioneered by Plowman Craven allows staff to send the drone up into the air to conduct a topographical survey using 3D Cloud Point technology, returning imagery swiftly and allowing Network Rail to make snap-decisions on the best course of action using Building Information Modelling (BIM). One of the best outcomes of this advancement, according to Paul, is the ability to halve the number of crews conducting the survey.

“What is particularly innovative about the new UAV is that the survey data is very detailed, so you’re talking about very high levels of accuracy,” he said. “Where drones could be used elsewhere to do video footage of any structural problems, the key here is about the ability to capture very accurate data – and that in itself would negate the requirement for access to the operational rail network.

“If you look at overall surveying efficiency, cost is a big factor, as is the level and quality of data produced. So, the quality of the information would negate the need for repeated site visits, and you have very accurate information that’s scanned in a very short space of time.”

The full interview with Network Rail’s Paul Ashman will be in the latest edition out next week. Click here to subscribe!


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