BNSF using drones to survey Harvey damage near Houston

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HOUSTON — With much of the Houston area rendered inaccessible by continued rainfall and historic levels of flooding, BNSF has mobilized its aerial inspection program to get a head start on surveying the damage.

Todd Graetz, Director of Technology Services for BNSF’s UAS program, confirmed to Trains News Wire that two flight teams have been deployed to the Gulf coast to act as an “eye in the sky” that will help give the railroad “volumetric analysis, perspective, and another set of safety eyes.”

BNSF began developing the software and hardware for its drone inspection program approximately two years ago. The drones are fitted with cameras to take extremely high resolution photographs of railroad tracks, which is then analyzed by software designed to detect cracks or gaps in the rails, rotted, or improperly spaced ties, and missing spikes. BNSF has also used its drones to inspect difficult-to-access trestle bridges, inventory rail yards, and analyze derailment sites prior to cleanup. During the program’s developmental phase, the railroad pioneered with the Federal Aviation Administration to help establish regulations for corporate entities seeking to use drones in their operations.

Graetz said that the images captured by the drones will help to survey the damage and give BNSF an idea of how to conduct recovery efforts. Details about the results of the drone inspection are currently pending until the teams have a chance to return to BNSF’s regional center and upload and analyze the data. However, updates to a press release posted on BNSF’s web site noted that the company has already found washouts and high water on their mainlines and brought operations at all Houston area switching facilities to a halt. All three Class I railroads serving the area: BNSF, Union Pacific, and Kansas City Southern, have declared an embargo on the Houston area.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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