That is the very likely future of applying today’s ‘eyes in the sky’ capabilities of drones to making sure that the millions of kilometres of rail tracks and infrastructure worldwide are safe for train passengers and freight on a 24/7 basis.
“Drones are already being used to examine high-voltage electrical lines. They could do precisely the same thing to inspect railway catenary lines and other vital aspects of rail infrastructure such as, the alignment of tracks and switching points”, explains Pierre-Antoine Benatar, Marketing Manager for Thales’ Transportation Activities, “The more regularly they can be inspected, the more railway safety, reliability and on-time performance will be improved. Costs would be cut and operations would be more efficient across the board.”
That includes huge savings in maintenance costs and better protection of railway personnel safety. It is estimated that European railways alone spend approximately 20 billion euros a year on maintenance, including sending maintenance staff, often at night, to inspect and repair the rail infrastructure. That can be dangerous work that could be avoided with drones assisting the crews’ efforts.
By integrating leading technologies of Thales including advanced optronics and infra-red sensors, drones could also start providing higher-value services for railways, detecting cracks in the rail or defects in switches, before they can cause any disruption or safety hazard.
To perform these tasks, drones for rail don’t need to be flying overhead. “We are currently working on the concept of rail bot, the rail drones of the future. They will be moving on the track ahead of the train, and programmed to run autonomously,” says Pierre-Antoine Benatar. Through connectivity and Artificial Intelligence, they could then send in real time the information and analysis of any anomalies they detect. “When undertaking infrastructure inspection, they can speed up the tasks and free-up valuable network slots for passenger and freight trains”.
But the true revolution will be to use these rail bots to help make the trains themselves more autonomous. Very small drones with advanced sensors and AI and traveling ahead of the train could guide it like a co-pilot. With their ability to see ahead, they could signal any problem or obstacle, including at road crossings, so that fast-moving trains would be able to react in time.
“Be it aerial or track-bound, drones could truly become a critical part of rail safety when operators move towards autonomy in the future, and Thales is ready”, explains Benatar, “and when you add our expertise in air and rail traffic management to our capabilities in optronics, sensors, and artificial intelligence, it is clear that we are the preferred partner for operators who want to assure the best for their rail networks’ future.”