In October 2015, the use of a drone to monitor the condition of railway lines in New Mexico represented a significant leap forward for the railway industry and for the development of unmanned vehicle technology. Rod James looks at the operation in more detail, asking what technological and legislative breakthroughs are needed for drone deployment to become commonplace?
It is often said that the reason around 60% of Americans don’t have a passport is because they can experience the best of many worlds within their own borders. If a person is in no rush, they could hop on a train in Chicago that takes them through the plains of Nebraska, over the mountains of Colorado and Utah, down into the deserts of Nevada and finally to California and the clear blue of the Pacific Ocean. Covering 233,000 miles, the US rail network connects towns and cities of all sizes, crossing every kind of terrain and climate.
Such a large, varied network throws up a host of challenges as well as advantages. Maintenance is a massive ongoing task, particularly with large areas of track lying hundreds of miles from the nearest town. Track should ideally be inspected by foot on at least a weekly basis, especially in areas of the country prone to extreme temperatures, making maintenance a labour-intensive and expensive process.
The idea of using unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to help with this process has gained traction in recent years. In 2013, for example, German state railway operator Deutsche Bahn started using drones to combat graffiti artists, whose work was costing €6.7m a year to remove. Now, realising the potential of the technology for use in the remote corners of its network, US rail operators are making the move into unmanned territory.
In October 2015, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing-owned drone manufacturer Insitu and BNSF Railway, the second-largest freight railway network in the US with 32,500 miles of track, used a ScanEagle UAS drone to take real-time video and stills of 140 miles of track near Vaughn, New Mexico. Not only was this the largest drone operation to take place in the railway industry, it was the first FAA-approved beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation to be carried out with a drone on mainland America (drones have been used by oil companies in parts of Alaska above the Arctic circle).
As well as flying beyond the operator’s line of sight without incident, the team was able to hand over control of the drone to other ground stations along the track, suggesting that the potential distance drones can cover is hindered only by battery life.
“BNSF wanted more information than they could currently collect on their track and they wanted it with some velocity,” says Charlton Evans, Program Manager for Commercial and Civil UAS at Insitu. “They wanted the frequency of how they could measure and do inspections to go up, so that drove them to unmanned systems… This was an effort to see if we would give them the kind of information they were looking for over large areas of track without flying humans over the track. It was pretty groundbreaking as there was nobody in the airplane to see and avoid others flying around.”
Red tape and camera film
From a regulatory standpoint this operation was unprecedented. It took nine months of sometimes tense discussions to ensure that all ground obstacles and airspace were clear while the drone was in operation. The lessons learned from this process have gone into the creation of a formal document drawn up by the FAA, which provides a ready-made framework for future drone deployments. A lot has to happen, however, before drones can be employed at optimum effectiveness and in more built-up parts of the rail network.
The ScanEagle UAS, however, did not use the best available technology. As the mission was about proving rather than refining the concept of using drones for track inspection, the drone was fitted with one of Insitu’s stock cameras. While capable of spotting visible flaws like track erosion and warpage, more sophisticated cameras and sensors are required to pick up the small cracks in rails and spike that railway companies want to be able to see from the air.
To reach the desired level of sophistication, new technology will need to come to market. The Insitu team is currently looking at high-resolution still imagery and cameras that capture imagery in different spectra (beyond the spectrum of vision), which should be better equipped to capture detailed data while moving at high speed. For this technology to be drone-mounted, new developments in the miniaturisation of sensors might first be needed.
Another major challenge relates to collecting, relaying and processing the data that the drone collects. The drone used in New Mexico relays back video in real time, but this is unsuitable when it comes to the kind of in-depth analysis that Insitu intends to do. To this end, in December 2015 Insitu acquired 2d3 Sensing, a technology provider that specialises in using complex algorithms to process motion imagery.
“You couldn’t put enough people in front of monitors to watch the video in real time to see the kind of details they are looking for, so the data storage and analytics are going to happen on the back end,” Evans says. “That’s one of the hurdles the entire industry faces – massive amounts of data come in and sorting it out into the bits and pieces that actually mean anything to anyone is a huge problem.”
No lack of enthusiasm
The willpower certainly seems to exist on the part of the railway companies. The partnership between BNSF and Insitu has been extended beyond last October’s trial and the country’s largest freight network Union Pacific is also exploring the potential of drones, its CEO Jack Koraleski told Bloomberg in 2014. Both parties stress the use of drones as a supplement to existing methods, not a replacement (at least for now).They will be hoping that the technological and legislative pieces fall into place sooner rather than later.
“There’s a core of folks within the FAA who are very interested in making progress and when they partner with folks like us who want to meet them in a low-risk, high-safety way we can get it done,” says Evans.
“There were some difficult moments over those months [of negotiation]! But it was good because everyone walked away with a better understanding of the problems that we have to tackle.”
Plans to build the third-longest driverless light rail rapid transit system in the world in Montreal have been unveiled by Canadian pension fund Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (la Caisse).
To be built in partnership with Québec’s provincial government and the Canadian government, the 67-kilometre network will connect downtown Montréal, the South Shore, the West Island (Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue), the North Shore (Deux-Montagnes) and Montreal’s airport.
Trains will operate 20 hours a day, seven days a week across the network of 24 stations. Construction could begin as soon as next year and the system could be open by the end of 2020.
La Caisse estimates that the project will create around 7,500 jobs during its construction and an additional 1,000 when it opens.
The network, which has been named Réseau électrique métropolitain (REM), is being proposed by CDPQ Infra, a subsidiary of la Caisse.
La Caisse is willing to put in $3 billion to deliver the scheme, but will require an additional $1.5 billion from the provincial and federal governments for it to go ahead.
Announcing the plans, Michael Sabia, president and chief executive officer of la Caisse, said: “Today we are proposing an innovative public transit solution that will improve the quality of life in Montréal and deliver important economic, social and environmental benefits. It will improve the metropolitan region’s overall competitiveness.
He added: “The new transit system will also deliver long-term, stable investment returns very well aligned with the needs of our depositors, the people of Québec.”
A public consultation is now taking place.
“The rail industry moves very slowly” is a common refrain heard at conferences and trade shows around the world with respect to the introduction of new products and technology. Rail’s strong safety culture partly explains the apparent reluctance to embrace and pioneer innovative but often unproven technology. Lengthy certification processes and acceptance by railways are other reasons why tried-and-trusted remains the preferred course.
But should the industry be doing more to change this situation and speed up? Is the perception of a slow moving industry now just an excuse for sticking to what you know?
“Digitisation” is the current industry buzzword, and everywhere you go it seems everyone is talking about big data, the Internet of Things, and machine-to-machine technology. Industry figureheads are keen to point out the advantages that digitisation offers through greater automation, smart components, and services tailored to individual passengers, as well as the threats it poses to rail such as the development of automated cars.
For example, Dr Rüdiger Grube, German Rail’s (DB) CEO, told the Fourth Railway Forum in Berlin on March 1 that every sector of DB is now “digitised” in some form. He referred to digitisation as the “innovation driver of the 21st century” and said that getting it right was crucial for rail to remain a viable mode of transport.
Similarly it was a major topic of discussion at the International Railway Summit, hosted by IRJ and Irits, in Vienna in February. Director general of the International Union of Railways (UIC) Mr Jean-Pierre Loubinoux told delegates that rail must embrace the digital revolution to meet current and future passenger requirements. Similarly European Rail Research Advisory Council (Errac) chairman Mr Andy Doherty described digitisation as the “Trojan horse” for the industry’s development.
Public pronouncements may be one thing, but there need to be definitive cultural changes within railways for the sector to realise the benefits on offer. After all, digital technology waits for no-one. A balance must therefore be struck between investing in the technology that will offer rail a competitive edge but which can easily be updated and does not become obsolete after only two or three years.
DB’s chief procurement officer, Mr Uwe Günther’s, pronouncement that DB will in the future favour suppliers that offer new innovations in their bids for tenders as well as the opportunity to upgrade as new solutions become available, is encouraging. He also hinted at a situation currently where suppliers are not offering the innovations he feels the railway needs despite these solutions being readily available.
However, speak to any supplier and they will chart the frustrations they have with getting their products, which may offer many of the desired innovations, approved and in the hands of the big railway companies. Stories of 10-year certification and approval process for some components are not uncommon (IRJ September 2014 p118).
This is true regarding a technology which Grube was keen to tout during his speech: 3D printing. He reported that DB has been working on developing this concept with industry partners to produce components such as coat hooks and window handles for vehicles with 20 solutions now ready for adoption.
However, 3D printing for the rail industry is nothing new. My visit to Parker’s factory in Milton Keynes, Britain, (IRJ April 2015 p45) revealed the extensive work that has taken place in this area for many years. Yet while aviation, medical and Formula 1 motor racing are benefitting from the lightweight and strong but malleable components that this process can offer, rail is struggling to follow suit.
Parker has manufactured thousands of 3D printed components for rail, but this is usually for reverse engineering purposes to develop moulds for obsolete components used on aging rolling stock. Use of these lightweight components in new systems is currently rare because of the challenge of securing certification and acceptance.
Adopting legislation to alter this process then is just as important as changing a specific railway’s procurement culture, and there are signs of progress in at least two key areas.
Adoption into national law and practice of the EU’s public procurement framework is scheduled to take place this year. This includes awarding public contracts based on the most-economically advantageous tender (Meat) principle, which emphasises using lifecycle and not-upfront costs as a deciding factor during procurement, and may be a way of affording railways, which are under pressure to justify outlay, the flexibility to try something new.
Acceptance of the Fourth Railway Package’s technical pillar, which Mr Josef Doppelbauer, executive director of the European Rail Agency (ERA), told delegates in Vienna will happen by June, also promises to help overcome these hurdles by establishing ERA as the “one-stop-shop” for certification in Europe. The hope is that this will dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes for suppliers to certify their products for use in multiple countries. In turn, this will result in greater innovation in tenders.
However, if it is to succeed in its expanded role, ERA must have sufficient resources. Doppelbauer says that any talk of funding was left out of the terms of the technical pillar due to the mine field that is European politics. But with the acceptance date looming, he says he is now actively discussing how much funding ERA will require in the coming years to operate effectively.
Given the chosen path for rail in Europe, the outcome of these negotiations is crucial. A situation where ERA cannot keep up with demand will be no better than today’s drawn-out country-by-country certification processes. Indeed it will threaten the future ability of railways to compete and severely limit their capacity to embrace digitisation. The technology might be within their grasp but at present too much is continuing to slip through their fingers. Something has to give.
Written by Kevin Smith.