Network Rail conducts longest autonmous drone test flight


The company that runs the UK’s railway infrastructure, Network Rail has successfully flown an autonomous drone for 15 miles, the longest distance yet over land for such a flight in the country.

The 25km Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight took place this week along a stretch of railway near Bicester Aerodrome in Oxfordshire.

The proof of concept test flight is the culmination of an 18 month project to trial the use of drones to inspect railway lines faster and more cost-effectively.

Drones and helicopters have been used by Network Rail to inspect the railway for many years because they reduce disruption for passengers and their use is safer than on foot manual inspections.

However drones were only ever flown above the railway when they were in clear sight of the operator and usually only up to around 3 miles (5km) at a time, restricting their use. The capability to fly BVLOS enables Network Rail’s air operations team to inspect the railway over a much larger area while saving valuable time and costs.

Rikke Carmichael, Network Rail’s head of air operations said, “While flying Beyond Visual Line of Sight will ultimately provide us with much greater capability, it is worth emphasising that this was a proof-of-concept flight, and that a shift to using BVLOS as business as usual will take some time.

“Nonetheless, yesterday was an important milestone. We’ll now turn our attention to agreeing a strategy for using drones both VLOS and BVLOS, after which we will want to engage with industry for the next exciting phase of BVLOS becoming another routine service the Air Ops team provides the business.”

A Network Rail helicopter also flew alongside the drone to test whether or not the two could work together, and whether their respective systems recognised each other. It was proved that they did work effectively together. Data captured by the helicopter will be used to create a ‘digital twin’ of the railway that was flown over.

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