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Drones: Rail Survey technology reaches new heights

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Network Rail and the various infrastructure contractors are in a high risk business. They have to plan work on assets that are not fully understood, there is increased pressure on project overruns and to manage and reduce health and safety issues, all necessitating more complex project management. They are having to come up with more and more imaginative solutions to the problems faced procuring or bidding for new work, delivering construction projects and maintaining key assets.

New technology

The stakeholders on all projects are searching for the following four objectives:

  1. greater efficiency (reduced cost);
  2. less risk (especially Health and Safety);
  3. quicker project times;
  4. less track closures.

A recent post on a LinkedIn forum seems to support these findings and sympathise with those involved: “Rail infrastructure managers find themselves in a dilemma. They have to maintain the infrastructure to ensure its safety and reliability, while keeping the track as available as possible. They also have to optimise the use of their resources and contractors to keep costs to a minimum.”

The initiatives to support these key objectives are varied but represent a step change for the industry. Instead of palliative solutions aimed at reducing the symptoms (e.g. working longer shifts, reducing margins etc.) there is now an increasing use and adoption of technology to tackle the real causes.

But how can technology help?

One of the companies involved in helping contractors to understand what they are being asked to do is the Bionic Group. The London-based multi-media animation specialists for the construction and rail sector have worked directly with Network Rail and supported over 1,000 projects with the network’s main contractors. Having been working in the construction industry for 14 years, the company has amassed a wealth of experience. This shows that there are three main fundamentals to any major project: better information, improved communications and a reduction in human interaction.


The better an asset is understood, the more accurate an invitation to tender (ITT) can be created and the more precisely a proposal can be crafted. The traditional method for understanding assets is through surveying. In addition to human interaction (see later) the output of a survey is often subjective and in the form of a fixed report non re-usable or transferable.

Where technology assists is with an increasing adoption of photogrammetry to create life-like images of topology. Large, high, remote or inaccessible structures can be filmed using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or ‘drones’) and the images used to create 3D models for surveyors to use for condition assessment. This can be done prior to a bid or as part of a risk based maintenance assessment.

LiDAR is increasingly being used to create pinpoint 3D measurements of land, tunnels and viaducts. This is coupled with a technology to convert the terabytes of data into pin-point accurate 3D models, often overlaying the use of photography to add texture and realism.

One example of the use of this technique is to create fully-immersive 3D models of new routes for signal location work and driver training. The results from this work can also be used to create BIM (building information modelling) models which have an obvious re-use.

All of this activity is entirely in keeping with Network Rail’s asset management strategy which defines, as an objective of its core principles, “optimising decisions and planning based on risk principles, robust principles and innovative methodologies”.

Whilst the introduction of these technologies is underway, the demographic is uneven. Some organisations have no capability while others conduct full LiDAR, cloud-point data processing in-house. There is no dominant player to go to today and often a solution would necessitate some in-house capability and a number of different sub-contractors/suppliers. These are indications of a young, emerging market which will, in all probability see a number of mergers and acquisitions over the next few years.


The re-usable material created by the above technology-assisted surveys is highly visual. This can greatly assist in the creation of method statements which are immediately usable, easy to understand and unambiguous for all project stakeholders. Poor communication of ‘the story’ is cited by project managers as a prime reason for project delay. The same output can be re-used again for public consultations and/or even dispute resolution.

Here the picture for adoption is equally fragmented, with the default position being a reliance on paper. The more enlightened (and more efficient organisations) are comfortable with using 3D method statement videos, with time lines, as the primary communication for project teams.


A direct benefit of using unmanned vehicles to place cameras close to assets is the obvious reduction in ‘boots on ballast’ and, often, surveyors on ropes. Although there are obvious limitations (no tactile examination capability), the unmanned camera approach provides a fast method to determine just how much, if any, of a given asset requires closure for human inspection or costly out of hours work.

Surprisingly, the number one bugbear from contractors is not cost or time scales but the complexity, time and cost involved in satisfying Health and Safety obligations. Here, technology is massively reducing potentially-risky human interaction with the rail network.

Bionic Eye

So the primary move seems to be around ‘asset information’, gained with the minimum of human interaction and impact to the track. This data can then be leveraged and re-used in everything from bid support to maintenance approach. It’s a methodology that is easy to summarise but difficult to execute.

To assist, the Bionic Group has recently launched a specialist technology division aimed at bespoke solutions for rail survey and asset management, the Bionic Eye. This uses unmanned vehicles (aerial, ground and cable) and bespoke camera rigs to transmit highly accurate and interactive data to surveyors – the BE.3DAM solution.

The Bionic Eye mission is to be at the vanguard of the use of this new technology and processes – the ‘leading, but not bleeding’ edge of technology – and to use remote vehicle use to provide obvious and quantifiable benefit to contractors on the rail network.

For more information, visit www.thebioniceye.co.uk


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