Infrastructure maintenance contractor Lanes Rail has been given the green light by Transport for London (TfL) to use drones to carry out of asset surveys across the London Underground network.
The decision comes after a year-long approval process, complicated by the density of London’s population, and the many dynamic factors likely to be in play during operations.
Lanes Rail expects the use of drones to improve its data-gathering capabilities. When used in conjunction with video or thermal-imaging cameras, drones enable maintenance crews to survey areas and points of interest quickly from above. In many cases, this removes the need for crews to work in dangerous environments, and reduces the risk of operational disruptions.
In busy London, that could mean the difference between delayed commuters on the Underground and a smooth-running service.
Lanes Rail to combine drones, imaging & analytics
Lanes Rail currently performs maintenance and repairs across the London Underground network. Tasks vary from inspecting track drainage to keeping station buildings in working order, surveying bridges and engineering works.
Lanes Rail Director Matthew Todd believes that the adoption of drone technology will benefit every stakeholder in London’s transport network. “Using drones, combined with advanced imaging and analytical technology, will deliver significant benefits for us, for TFL, and for the travelling public in London,” he said.
“We have led the way in trialling the use of drones to survey structures for London Underground. Now we’re the first contractor to obtain formal long-term licence approval for their use from TfL, which opens up exciting opportunities.”
Public awareness a priority
Unsurprisingly, Lanes Rail’s drone technology had to meet TfL’s safety, security, and operational quality standards in order to be given the go-ahead.
Also among TfL’s concerns was public perception, with the city in a frequent state of high alert, following several terror attacks in London and other capitals in recent years. Among the priorities for Lanes Rail will be to reassure the public and TfL staff that the drones are meant to be there.
“In essence, we had to go through a very detailed and structured process of answering every conceivable ‘what if’ question. What if the drone malfunctioned, what if the drone was flown close to a power line or signalling equipment, and what if a member of the public or TfL employee saw the drone flying?” explained Todd.
“We had to demonstrate that our drones would be safe to fly within the defined operational envelope set for them, that we were competent to use them, and that we had procedures in place to manage any foreseeable circumstance involving TfL staff and customers.”
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The Lanes Rail drone survey team also had to prove to TfL that its hardware could safely operate in electromagnetic environments, including alongside live rail and signalling systems.
Andrew McQueen, head of Lanes Professional Services, doesn’t think it will take the public too long to grow used to drones buzzing around, performing maintenance inspections. “Being able to carry out UAV surveys is a major step forward, especially for working on public transport assets that need to be in continuous operation,” he said.
“As data-gathering becomes integrated into ever more sophisticated real-time asset control systems, supported by technologies such as big data analysis and artificial intelligence, drones will really come into their own to improve the quality, safety, and cost-effectiveness of our built environments.”
Internet of Business says
Internet of Business and other analysts have been predicting for some time that drones could be a critical component in civil engineering projects, urban infrastructure maintenance, and in avoiding the need for human beings to work too close to hazardous environments, such as within nuclear power stations or disaster zones.
With drones already being used to survey, clean, and repair offshore or remote installations, such as wind turbines, and in search and rescue operations (saving 65 lives last year), this is one of the first urban drone programmes to be approved by local authorities. Many more will follow.