Rail Safety Week: The safety benefits of drones


With Rail Safety Week starting (25 September to 1 October), it is time to shine a spotlight on the lesser known safety benefits that drones provide.

While the commercial benefits around drone technology are sparking the imaginations of the rail industry, the technology is delivering a revolution for safety in rail.

Joan Heery, AECOM’s engineering director

Several major organisations are beginning to use drones for a broad range of applications, including survey data acquisition, asset condition assessment, construction monitoring and public consultation features.

After all, the use of drones can bring many advantages:

  • health and safety benefits and cost and time savings through removing the need to place staff in a position of risk yet also providing a visualisation tool to place people within a virtual environment for briefing and familiarisation purposes
  • technical benefits such as objective data collection, repeatability and overcoming constraints for challenging and higher risk access to difficult to reach zones
  • operational benefits through minimising disruptive access to sites

While drones can offer many safety advantages, critics of the technology believe that it cannot achieve levels of accuracy compared to traditional survey methods. However, recent results have shown otherwise. AECOM has used drone technology on projects and has achieved accuracies sufficient for design purposes.

During a drone survey of a railway depot in central London, we were able to achieve better than 15mm accuracy when the data was analysed with suitable survey control. Following the installation of ground control, the drone survey was completed in less than 6 hours flight time over an 11 hectare area.

Traditional methods would have taken eight to 10 weeks, due to the survey time required and operational constraints of the site. The drone survey also had the advantage of capturing information and measurements of track furniture, buildings and other features, not simply the ground level detail. Similar results have been achieved from surveys carried out across our rail and road networks.

As well as misconceptions around accuracy of results, there is nervousness regarding drones distracting drivers of trains and vehicles. However, drones typically operate at an altitude of greater than 50m, which removes the risk of line of sight and any distraction to drivers.

In recognition of the safety factors surrounding drone operations, AECOM has recently gained permission from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to overfly highways.

This demonstrates that the safety risks associated to drone operations over infrastructure are low.

Although the use of drones is gaining popularity in the construction industry as a cost and labour-saving tool, adoption is not widespread. It will be essential for companies to invest in this kind of technology in order to drive risk mitigation of safety incidents. At AECOM, we have used drones to capture data for over five years in the UK as part of our digital solutions.

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