Latest drone-borne technology helps NR monitoring

Network Rail has hailed a drone-borne railway infrastructure measurement and monitoring system from Plowman Craven as a “game-changer”, due to its potential to increase the safety and cost-effectiveness of track maintenance.

NR’s endorsement of the Hertfordshire company’s Vogel R3D technology follows a successful trial of the product at sidings near Stoke in February, that it part-funded.

Vogel R3D comprises a 100 mega-pixel camera, flown by an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at a height of 25 metres above track level and at a speed of between 1-2 metres per second. The high-resolution images are then pieced together using computer software and converted to Point Cloud data to produce 3D and virtual reality models for the end user, plus topographical surveys and track alignment data.

Unlike train-borne devices or manual inspection, Vogel R3D does not require physical access to the network or any possessions, apart from when placing visual markers adjacent to the track that act as control points for interpreting the data.

By avoiding the need for ‘boots on the ground’ or for closing the railway, the attractiveness of using UAV technology is obvious to NR - it must compensate operators during possessions, and bear the risk to contractors and the associated costs of providing safety-critical staff.  

Chris Preston, a senior engineer at NR said: “The application of the Vogel R3D is a real game-changer for Network Rail, and helps us to satisfy many of our survey requirements in a safe manner without the cost implications or potential programme delays associated with multiple possessions.”

Plowman Craven told RAIL that having been presented to NR’s track technology board, Vogel R3D fully satisfies NR’s photogrammetry techniques and standards for use on the network. The company now expects to be included in a framework agreement that NR already has with four other companies that use UAVs to provide aerial inspections and surveys, when it is renewed at the end of the year.

“We believed we could develop something where we wouldn’t need to shut the railway,” said Malcolm Donald, director at Plowman Craven.

“The holy grail to NR is that no one is on the track, so there’s no possession, which can be expensive to NR and in busy areas quite hard to get. The savings come from less possession planning, safety personnel, and (Schedule 8) payments to operators, and (of course) reputational benefits for improved safety.

“But we’re not just a company using a UAV to take pictures, it’s a tool to get high accuracy data. This product delivers track alignment data to an accuracy of 2mm, which no one else is doing.”

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