Drones in Maine to spot trespassers near the trains

Brunswick, Maine, police set to begin UAV patrols in cooperation with the Federal Railroad Administration
RELATED TOPICS: TECHNOLOGY | SAFETY | CRIME | NORTHEAST | AMTRAK
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BRUNSWICK, Maine — Over the past four years, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Brunswick Police Department have grown a cordial relationship in developing new technology to spot trespassers on railroad right-of-way. Now the partnership is set to take off — with a drone.

Come Spring, the Brunswick police and the FRA will begin to test an unmanned aerial vehicle — a drone — to patrol some 10 miles of line through town that carries Amtrak's Downeaster and Pan Am Railways freight trains.

While railroads are adopting UAVs for track and infrastructure inspections, this is the first time the FRA has worked with local police to put one in the field for “trespass detection and deterrence,” according to Mikhail Grizewitsch, a technical analyst with the FRA.

“Trespassing is a growing issue with the railroad industry. It's time to get a little creative,” Grizewitsch says. First the FRA installed video cameras in Brunswick to spot trespassers. The drone is the next technological step.

“It would take us hours to walk a couple miles along the tracks,” said Thomas Garrepy, the Brunswick Police Department's patrol commander. He said there are some sections that are only accessible by foot, but a drone could spot trespassers or transient campsites in a fraction of the time.

“Launching a drone from a grade crossing or safe place won't interfere with railroad operation, and should be safe for everybody,” Grizewitsch says.

Trespassing is not epidemic in Brunswick, although Grizewitsch said one camera recorded 177 events in a two-week period. Garrepy recalled one case in 20 years where a train struck and killed a pedestrian, but that was a suicide.

“We have a lot of people who use the rail line as the shortest path between Point A and Point B,” Garrepy said. “People don't realize the train can sneak up on you, or they're not aware of how fast it's going.”

The Downeaster can be a danger because it's fairly quiet. The train operates push-pull, with a diesel unit at one end and a control cab on the other.

Grizewitsch said Brunswick became a technology partner because the town was willing to be one. He said communities and railroads are not always willing to partner with the FRA for numerous reasons, such as liability.

“To be frank with you, I can't always find partners,” he said.

Cops and drones raise privacy concerns among some citizens, Garrepy says, but he's being as transparent as possible with the way the drone will be used, and that helped win the support of the Brunswick Town Council.

Both Grizewitsch and Garrepy emphasized that the drone will not be a law enforcement tool. State law prohibits police from using drones in criminal cases unless they have a warrant to do so.

Gareppy said the police will not arrest people for trespassing, but there may be cases where they could make arrests for other violations.

“I want to get out and educate people so we're not one of those communities that have a fatality on the tracks,” Garrepy says. “It's for detection and education first. Because the FRA's main concern is safety.”
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