The Air Operations Team at Network Rail has achieved a major milestone flying a drone 25km outside of the normal visible range for the pilot
The team undertook the successful drone flight Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) from Bicester and along the East-West Railway.
The flight is thought to be the furthest civilian drone flight in Britain.
The proof of concept flight took place on Wednesday the 27th of October and has seen a year and a half of work to reach this point and represents a huge step forward in how drones can be used to inspect railways in a fast, safe and cost-effective manner.
Network Rail have used drones and helicopters for a long time to discover faults on the railway and also to predict and prevent future issues bringing less disruption for passengers and also offering a safer method of
maintenance by reducing the need for manual inspections carried out on foot.
Up until this breakthrough, drones have only been flown over the railway when in clear sight of the pilot/operator with only four to five kilometres covered at a time. Whilst this has been a useful approach to inspect the railway infrastructure, it does need a team to organise multiple times at differing locations.
BVLOS flight capabilities will now give the air operations team the ability to inspect the railway over a much bigger area and will bring savings in both time and costs.
During the proof of concept flight, a Network Rail helicopter flew alongside the drone to assess whether the two could work together and also to see if the two systems could recognise each other. The test proved successful and data captured by the helicopter can be used to create a ‘digital twin’ of the railway it has flown over.
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 and I’d like to thank my team for all their hard work on this project over the last couple of years. 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.”
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