Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have soared in popularity in recent years. Peter Derry, innovations director at Interserve, assesses the possibilities and contingent risks of using drones for security purposes in the rail industry, as well as their wider applicability for the sector

The commercial use of unmanned aerial vehicles has really begun to take off over the past few years. According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the number of private and public sector organisations in Britain issued with permits for flying UAVs commercially increased by 80 per cent between January and October 2014. More recently we’ve seen a number of major corporations make high profile commitments to the use of UAVs, such as Amazon’s recently unveiled plans for its Prime Air service, which will use UAVs to deliver packages to customers within 30-minutes of ordering.

With up-front technology costs falling, hundreds of companies in the UK are now making forays into the world of UAVs. Their use remains predominantly for monitoring and evaluation purposes – for example for land surveys and building inspections. But with further technological advances on the horizon, we can expect UAVs to take a more active role in proceedings in future.

So what could UAVs offer the rail sector? They are already being wholeheartedly embraced by some of the industry’s leading organisations, for security as well as other surveying and maintenance purposes. Others are taking an ultra-cautious stance and implementing blanket bans on their use until further field testing has been carried out. Whatever the current approach, it’s fair to say there are very few organisations out there who don’t believe that UAVs will play a role in the industry at some point in the future – the question is how and when, and what benefits and risks they will bring.

The flying eye in the sky
We have long become accustomed to our transport networks being monitored by a plethora of cameras and CCTV devices. As well as providing evidence for criminal enquiries, they help passengers to feel safer and operate as a deterrent for those intending to commit criminal acts.

The prospect of using UAVs to monitor vulnerable areas appears to be the logical progression of the eye in the sky we have come to rely upon so much. Indeed some have already made this leap; in 2013, Deutsche Bahn began trialling the use of UAVs at graffiti hotspots in Berlin, Leipzig and Cologne to deter would-be vandals and capture video evidence of any crimes committed.

In the UK, problems such as the vandalism of carriages and metal theft remain a primary concern for rail operators. Between 2013 and 2014, cable theft on the UK rail network caused over 1,100 hours of delays and cost operators an estimated £2.5 million. With large depots and lengthy sections of track to monitor, UAVs could provide operators with a cost-effective way to protect against this kind of security breach.

At present, the vast majority of open-air track has to be monitored by security guards and maintenance operatives, as it would be prohibitively expensive to deploy fixed cameras along many kilometres of rail line. By using UAVs to carry out the arduous work of physically checking the tracks and fencing for trespassers or security breaches, operators could improve the efficiency of their monitoring operations while freeing up staff to look after higher value, higher risk assets.

By removing employees from the front line of the tracks themselves, UAVs would also provide an invaluable boon to health and safety – a key concern for any security operator whose remit includes live train tracks.

If it sounds too good to be true…
There’s no doubt that, used carefully and in the correct application, UAVs could yield significant efficiencies for the industry, especially in the field of security. However, rail operators need to go into any UAV programme with their eyes wide open, as there are several inherent risks when it comes to UAVs, whether used in a security capacity or for anything else.

Looking beyond the rail industry, some sectors are already utilising UAVs extensively in day-to-day operations. The construction industry, for example, has been an enthusiastic early adopter of the technology, using UAVs to survey and photograph building sites and gather information about materials and ongoing works. Construction sites, however, are relatively easy-to-control areas; with a relatively small surface area, clearly demarcated boundaries, few overhead obstructions and tightly restricted access for members of the public.

Deploying a UAV over a railway line is a far more dangerous business. Besides needing to be navigated over huge linear stretches of track – a challenge in itself given regulations around maintaining line-of-sight – the UAV pilot would have to contend with the ever-present risk posed by live overhead lines, overhanging vegetation, and even passing trains. Urban construction sites are relatively sheltered – how would a UAV fare in windy conditions over an open expanse of railway track?

The issue of privacy and data security also presents a major challenge. With huge stretches of Britain’s railway lines passing through densely populated areas, accusations of snooping could easily be levelled at UAV operators. Moreover, the audio/visual data gathered by UAVs could, if it fell into the wrong hands, actually exacerbate security breaches rather than help to prevent them.

Regulation and enforcement
A recent report by Lloyd’s of London entitled Drones Take Flight warns that one of the biggest challenges facing UAVs in a commercial environment is the patchy nature of regulation as it currently stands; although it’s clear that progress is being made in this regard. Specific permission from the CAA is now required for all UAV flights carried out for commercial purposes. Furthermore, the person in charge of a UAV must maintain direct, unaided line of sight with the device, measured as 500 metres horizontally and 122 metres vertically, at all times to help prevent collisions.

As well as observing the latest legislation, it is crucial for rail operators and suppliers to put in place their own guidelines for the use of this technology. At Interserve, our in-house UAV centre of excellence has used the experiences of both our construction and facilities management teams to establish guideline protocols for the deployment of UAVs. Any team which plans to conduct aerial work has to determine advance flight paths and landing sites, thereby reducing the risk of collisions and of privacy infringements. Stakeholder liaison plans also now include advance warnings regarding the use of UAVs to help protect the privacy rights of local residents.

To mitigate the risk of a UAV coming down on a section of live track, there is a middle ground that can be considered in the form of ‘tethered’ solutions, whereby the UAV is held in a certain place using a fixed cable. This cable also provides the unit with additional power, increasing the duration of each flight. A tethered UAV would reduce the regulatory burden on the operator and require far less investment in pilot training; however its static nature limits the effectiveness of the unit in monitoring large stretches of track.

When it comes to protecting the data generated by UAVs, it is often simply a case of applying existing processes to the new technology. Companies already offer employee guidance on how to protect email and computer systems from viruses and hackers, for example by using encrypted passwords. There is no reason why the data generated by drones can’t be protected using the same systems. Operators just need to make sure that they have a robust data management process in place and that their employees fully understand the data they are dealing with and how best to protect it.

Keeping our heads
Perhaps the biggest risk we face when it comes to UAVs is in getting carried away and not using our common sense. We must remind ourselves that UAVs are not a panacea; just because a UAV could be used to solve a problem, doesn’t mean it should. It would be all too tempting to excitedly wheel out a UAV to check a breach in a high perimeter wall – without realising that you could achieve the same effect with a camera on the end of a pole in half the time, for half the cost!

Our ability to gather and evaluate data also needs to keep pace with this new aerial technology. Flying the UAV may be the exciting bit, but the real value lies in being able to understand the data it produces. In the future, UAVs will be able to do this themselves. Some construction companies, for example, now have intelligent UAV systems which can survey a mound of materials and estimate how many lorries will be needed to transport it. Using these automated algorithms, drones could not only help us to monitor and maintain large railway estates but also play an active role in helping us to establish robust asset management plans.

Some are also beginning to explore how UAVs can be developed to do more than just look. A number of universities, for example, are trialling the addition of cutting arms and small tools to UAVs which, in theory, could be used to carry out small-scale maintenance and repairs mid-flight. It is through this evolution of the technology, whereby drones could perform multiple, active roles, that we will start to see real benefits for commercial operators in the rail sector and beyond.

Like most nascent technologies, UAVs do not come problem-free and in order to avoid the worst dangers, careful planning is needed by both rail operators and their suppliers. This should not dissuade us from their use, but it ought to make us more wary of heralding them as a silver bullet solution.

As the supportive technology continues to evolve apace, the applications for UAVs in the rail industry will undoubtedly expand. However, it is important that we consider the implications of their use now, and have the right protocols in place, in order for us to be ready to embrace them in the future