BNSF takes to the sky with drones to inspect Montana main line; program may expand in 2019

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HAVRE, Mont. — BNSF Railway may expand a groundbreaking pilot program that uses drones to conduct track inspections along remote sections of its main line.

Since 2015, the railroad has been using drones to take detailed photos of the tracks along three different subdivisions that can later be analyzed by computers to find defects, such as broken rails or ballast fouling. Todd Graetz, director of BNSF’s drone program, tells Trains that the railroad will decide early in 2019 whether the program will be expanded, which he said is likely.

“We have paved a path forward not just for other railroads but for utility companies or anyone who needs to inspect large amounts of critical infrastructure,” he says.

While a number of railroads have been using drones to inspect bridges and other pieces of infrastructure, no one has embraced the technology like BNSF. In 2015, BNSF teamed up with the Federal Aviation Administration to begin researching advanced industrial applications for drones through the agency’s Pathfinder Program. As part of the research, BNSF got special approval to test drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, beyond visual line-of-sight, meaning an operator did not have to keep a constant eye on the vehicle. This has enabled the railroad to fly drones over remote pieces of railroad with pilots that are hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away.

BNSF has been testing drone technology on three different subdivisions: The Milk River Subdivision in Montana and the Gallup and Clovis subdivisions in Arizona and New Mexico. A few times a week, employees in Havre will roll the drone out of a shelter and prepare it for flight. Graetz says the drones BNSF has been using for the long-range inspections weigh in at approximately 120 pounds are 15 feet wide. The drones then take off vertically before heading out along the line. The drone flies at about 380 feet in the air, day or night. The drones are operated by professional pilots who are either based in Havre or Fort Worth.

The drones take two photos a second as it flies above the rail looking for defects. After a 6 to 8-hour flight, the vehicle returns to its homebase and the images are reviewed by a computer program looking for various defects that are then outlined in a report given to track inspectors. Graetz says the railroad has amassed a huge amount of visual data that can show changes to the tracks overtime. The images are also connected to GPS points so that the viewer always knows exactly where it was taken.

“If we can prove this concept on these three subdivisions we will expand the program,” he says. “Right now, we’re evaluating everything to see if that makes sense.”

BNSF officials say the drones will not be used to replace human track inspectors but instead be yet another tool for track inspection. However, Graetz envisions a future where track inspectors can rely on data from the drones and not have to be in harm's way conducting inspections at night or during inclement weather. He says, so far, the drones have been able to withstand bitter cold Montana winters.

Ross Lane, spokesperson for BNSF, says the drones could help the company achieve its ultimate safety goals.

“Our vision is to operate without injury and this suite of technology, from things like drones to geometry cars, can help us get there,” he says.

Drones have become a popular tool for railroads in recent years. BNSF has at least 60 employees trained to fly tradition line-of-sight crafts and Union Pacific has more than 80. Besides inspecting bridges, drones have been used to inspect washouts following heavy rains. In 2016, UP was able to use a drone to bring live images of flooding in northern Iowa back to headquarters in Omaha.

"When managers in the field and at headquarters can see the exact same picture, in real time, resource allocation is much more accurate,” said Bob Meder, Union Pacific's senior manager of unmanned aerial systems.

Earlier this year, UP briefly used drones at 14 different rail yards to monitor employees and ensure they were not violating work rules, such as getting on and off moving equipment. The surveillance drones were later grounded after the practice was criticized by union officials.

“We believe such surveillance actually will reduce safety because the drones will distract crews from maintaining strict vigilance on their work tasks,” Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen National President Dennis R. Pierce told Trains earlier this year.
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