3 Major Ways Drones are Benefiting the Railroad Industry

Railways have transported people and goods for hundreds of years.

As a result, countries all around the world depend on vast networks of train tracks as a vital component of their infrastructure.

Criss-crossing over the landscape, there are over 1.3 million route kilometers of track worldwide, with the United States having the largest network of tracks at 150,462 route kilometers.

And, it’s a booming business.

As a whole, the railroad industry was worth $723.2 million in 2020, and is expected to grow to $974.2 million by 2026.

That’s an impressive annual growth rate of 4.3%, with the potential to grow even faster as the need for improvements to supply chains becomes more evident.

Keeping this massive enterprise moving – and on track – is no small task.

In addition to the millions of kilometers of rail lines, numerous other facilities are needed to keep trains in motion. Land, service centers, buildings, and other supporting equipment are kept functioning by an army of workers worldwide.

In recent years, this vital work has been made easier and more efficient with drone technology, along with a host of other industries.

While the use cases for UAVs continue to grow, three applications in particular are currently seeing more use than others.

Let’s break them down.

Drones Help Railroads Guard Freight

Oftentimes, the cargo moved by railroads is extremely valuable, and present a tempting target for thieves and organized crime.

Generally, the task of monitoring and protecting goods in transit falls on security personnel. Unfortunately, there often aren’t enough security guards to effectively deter theft.

Drones, however, are perfectly suited for this sort of task. They can monitor large supply yards or miles of stationary train cars, more safely and efficiently than people alone.

In some cases, drones are able to nearly completely replace the need to put security personnel in harm’s way.

Innovations such as various drone-in-a-box solutions are able to autonomously monitor a facility. These self-contained drone solutions detect potential thieves, and send real-time video feeds to command centers, alerting security forces of the situation.

Railway Accident Reconstruction & Investigation

It’s an unfortunate reality that accidents on and around train tracks happen all too frequently, with most occurring at railway crossroads.

For example, in the United States, there are almost 6,000 collisions between trains and automobiles every year, resulting in an average of 600 deaths and 2,300 injuries.

Investigating these accidents is a challenge.

However, with their ability to capture high-resolution imagery and create detailed modeling, drones are excellent tools in accident reconstruction and investigation.

The images captured by UAVs provide survey-level accuracy for both 2D and 3D map construction, which are important in post-scene analysis. 

The results that drones provide are far better than people alone can collect, and help prevent similar accidents in the future.

Railroad Infrastructure Inspections

By far, the most prolific use of drones in the railroad industry is for inspections.

Bridges, tracks, tunnels, and buildings are subject to wear and tear from both the environment and trains.

Railroad tracks, for example, last on average between 40 and 60 years. That may seem like a long time, but when you consider the millions of kilometers of track around the world, there is always something that needs to be replaced.

Inspecting everything with people on the ground is simply too inefficient, and using helicopters or planes is far too expensive.

Drones, on the other hand, are ideally suited for the task.

Hard-to-reach structures, like bridges, can be scanned autonomously, without needing pilot intervention. After the data is gathered, accurate models can be created for engineers to examine and study.

With recent innovations, drones are even capable of riding along railroad tracks in-between flights.

One company, has even designed a drone that can glide along the track, avoid traffic, and operate day or night, all while inspecting the track for any defects. The UAV even has an astonishing 200km range. 

Perhaps someday soon, fleets of drones like this will be used to monitor all railroad tracks, eliminating the need for people to ever perform the task again.

The Takeaways

As drones continue to evolve, along with cameras, LiDAR, and thermal technology, they become even more valuable to the railroad industry.

Impressive beginnings are already yielding improved efficiencies and better safety records. Whether it’s guarding freight, preventing accidents, or maintaining crucial infrastructure, the use of drones is simply too good to pass up.

If you are interested in learning more about how drones can help you in the railroad industry, speak with an expert today.

So, which drone is right for you? And, how do you get started? Do you hire out or bring your drone program in-house?

At Consortiq, we help you find a better way with drones, from consultation and program implementation to actually doing the work for you.

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David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly - Contributing Author

David Daly, is an award-winning photographer/writer and licensed (FAA) Commercial sUAS pilot. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, David is a former Marine Corps officer with a BS in Oceanography and has earned his MBA from the University of Redlands. David has worked for Fortune 100 companies and has a background in aerospace, construction, military/defense, real estate, and technology.

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