Drones for Railways: What can drones do for one of the largest railway networks in the world? Railway infrastructure monitoring by drones can supercharge the transport network that we’re most proud of and can produce results that are currently perceived as “difficult” or even “impossible”. Here’s how.
The Engineers Who Could
It was 1853 when the first commercial train ran in India from Bombay to Thane. In that revolutionary moment, we discovered what was going to be its most reliable mode of transport. After nearly a century of running successfully, the first setback was during the partition. About 40% of the railway lines wound up on the Pakistan side of the border.
Since then, the Indian Railways has become the fourth largest railway network in the world, with 17 zones covering a total of 69,182 kms. This railway network is responsible for 25 million passengers reaching their destination every day. It may just be one of India’s most impressive accomplishments.
However, what’s curious is that the Indian Railways also runs on a huge budget. The cost of keeping this network alive consumes 98.5% of the revenue it makes. On the other hand, till date, less than half the tracks have over-head electrification, and that’s despite the fact that OHE is the biggest infrastructural overhaul Indian railways got. Now, with the help of drones for railways’ project monitoring, the future of developing railway infrastructure with speed and accuracy is now on track.
The Next Big Step for Railways
Despite the progress that the Indian Railways have made, some of the challenges remain the same. Let’s say, for example, a new railway route is being planned. The typical protocol would require a team of surveyors to inspect the terrain, map the route and assess the feasibility of the railway line there. With hundreds of kilometres of tracks being added, this is no easy job for people to do manually. The problem elevates as the terrain becomes more challenging.
Imagine being responsible for constructing a new railway line in a hilly region. It would take a team several months to access the terrain and take stock of it. Rain, snow, and other seasonal variations are not their only obstacle.
One radical change that has made a real difference is the use of drones in mapping terrain for new railway lines. With ideaForge imaging technology, a drone flies over the area that needs to be surveyed and collates the data to produce a 3D model and a contour map. It takes up to a few days to get a 3D or an elevation model of the entire area that is under consideration. Now, it is only a matter of determining how they want to go about building the railway track with ideaForge’s customised drones for railways.
With weeks of man-power saved, the Indian railways can now focus on the rapid development of its networks.
When the railway track is being laid, the same drones can be used to monitor the physical progress of the work. There are several parameters to be tracked that not only ensures the accuracy of the work, but also keeps an eye on any sabotage.
The Journey of Technological Upgrades
This brings us to the next challenge. With 19,000 trains running every day, ensuring passenger safety still lies squarely on the shoulders of the Railway Protection Force, who are no doubt in need of more manpower.
The RPF has a two-fold responsibility. The first is to ensure that the property of the railways is safeguarded. This is not just limited to ensuring that the train stations and platforms are safe. In the thousands of kilometres of laid railway tracks, the problem arises with encroachment and sometimes even the theft of overhead electrification lines. Other than this, ensuring passenger safety is another mammoth task.
Up until now, railway security personnel have had to manually monitor all of this. All of us have been on a train where at least once, the railway police have boarded in the middle of the night, demanding that we lock all our windows until we pass a certain area.
Recently, the Western Railway began using a drone-based track safety inspection system. The Q Series UAV from ideaForge has enabled the Railway Protection Force to cover 300% of the area that they do manually in a day.
A live feed from an HD camera with thermal imaging enables them to identify trespassing, encroachment, and the movement of vehicles and animals at all times of the day and night. A Q4i drone would cover a radius of 4 kilometres, effectively providing information about 8 kilometres of the track at any given time.