We use drones to help us look after the railway – and we’re carrying out more flights than ever.
You may be surprised to hear we have our own dedicated Air Operations team, which helps us monitor our 20,000 miles of track and 30,000 bridges, tunnels and viaducts.
We have pilots, a helicopter and drones, which all help us access parts of the railway that are hard to get to safely and efficiently.
Drones gather data, videos and images of the railway so we can better understand the problem in a certain location and what repairs we need to carry out. We aim to predict and prevent faults before they affect train services.
Using drones for close-up inspections means we can reach areas that are usually difficult to access. These include roofs, bridges, coastal areas, the overhead wires that power electric trains and communication masts.
Inspecting the railway by air means we can keep lines open to train services and keep our people safe because we’re not sending engineers out on track unnecessarily.
Drones helped our signalling upgrade through Hither Green in London
Watch this video to see our drone’s footage of a landslip in Kent. The Air Operations team helped our engineers understand the incident:
Our Air Operations team
Our fleet: machines and vehicles
Just Like Me: Q and A with pilot Rikke Carmichael
How are we improving our systems for better train journeys?
We’re enhancing our use of drones so we can deliver even more maintenance, upgrades and construction projects – and much faster.
A new flight management system will allow us to carry out significantly more drone flights every year. This will help our engineers on the ground by giving them even more information and lead to a better, more reliable and safer railway for you.
We carry out hundreds of drone flights a year, with a 10-day turnaround between flights. The new system means we can turnaround flights on the same day and in most cases, within the hour.
It will also enable us to send drones much further than before, beyond our current visual line of sight (BVLOS) permissions – beyond where the pilot can see the drone. This will hugely help our engineers monitor track, for example – and keep it safe and reliable for your train journeys.
One of the major benefits of our new flight management system will be removing the potential for human failure, which poses safety risks.
Rikke Carmichael, head of Air Operations, said: “With the number of drone flights at the level it is and only going to climb higher in the future, we need a system like this to manage the load to ensure we are as efficient and safe as possible.
“The [flight management system] will show drone pilots if another drone is operating nearby, as well as alert the pilot to other potential ground or air hazards in the area of the flight.”
Case study Edenbridge landslip response
Gallery: the landslip at Edenbridge in Kent, December 2019
A landslip at Edenbridge in Kent closed the railway in December 2019. The incident was one of the largest in the history of this region’s railway and the challenging repairs lasted until March 2020.
The drone gave us aerial access to a landlocked area and three train tracks, giving us a great overview of the damage. This meant the engineers could see how they needed to respond, helping them plan the recovery of the site much more quickly. It also meant we could show you the scale of the damage and why it would be impossible to run trains for months.
Our fleet: machines and vehicles
Drone safety and the law
Information about all aspects of unmanned aviation – Civil Aviation Authority
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