Air Operations

Inspecting the railway by air improves performance, reliability and safety – with no disruption to train services or work site activities

Our Air Operations team surveys the railway using the Network Rail helicopter and unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs or drones).

Please note: Flying unmanned aircraft (drones) on or around our infrastructure and people is a specialist and potentially high-risk activity. We have a framework of approved suppliers and specially trained in-house pilots, who are the only people authorised to fly drones for Network Rail.

All our authorised pilots and suppliers have gone through a robust safety and compliance process. They are the ONLY certified drone operators permitted to provide services from or within 50m of our infrastructure. 

What the team does

Operating our high-tech thermal and visual imaging equipment, this forward-thinking, high-flying team surveys the railway by air. This is effective – our equipment identifies the smallest of faults, and our aircraft cover wide areas fast – and a safe option, reducing the need to send people trackside to inspect railway equipment.

The team also works with internal customers across our routes to develop new aerial inspection techniques, using the latest technology to meet specific briefs.

It’s a critical part of keeping the railway running smoothly and safely, as you’ll see on this page. In just one example, in 2014, the air ops team picked up a fault on the East Coast Mainline that could have brought down the wires on all four rails, which would have caused massive disruption.


Here are some of the services we offer

Case study: hot spot

In January 2017, national aerial specialists carrying out a six-monthly maintenance thermal survey of the Great Western Mainline from Paddington to the Airport Spur tunnel portal spotted a traction current switch showing heat. After they’d been recording it for a short time, a train entered the section and the switch flared up, arcing excessively and flashing over (see pictures below) until the train came to a stand in the station platform.

The crew informed overhead line staff as soon as possible, who then went to the site to see what could be done to prevent the switch failing.

One of the overhead line technicians on site heard the switch hum and reported this to fault control, liaising with the electrical control room operator (ECRO) at Didcot to operate the switch live to correct the fault, which was that the switch was not closed properly. The ECRO confirmed that the switch had been used for an isolation of the line earlier in the week by a third party.

Once operated, the switch was inspected visually on the ground through binoculars, to make sure it was sitting correctly. The technicians stayed on site to watch two trains go through the section to check if the switch was still arcing, but this had stopped with the switch now closed correctly.

Our crew

Our national aerial survey specialists, pilots and drone operators can be based anywhere in the country from day to day, depending on where they are needed to inspect the railway.

I work all over the country so no day is ever the same. The aircraft surveys the whole of the rail network from above and looks for any potential faults with the equipment along the infrastructure. My job is to spot flaws before a failure occurs as this helps to keep the network running safely and smoothly.


The best part of my job is the travel. I’ve travelled across the entire country now and have seen it all from above; sometimes I have to pinch myself because it is so breath-taking.

Emma Taylor, national aerial survey specialist, who is responsible for operating the specialist camera equipment on the surveillance helicopter, and is a former signalling technician apprentice on our Advanced Apprenticeship Scheme 

Read and watch Emma’s apprentice profile

Unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs/drones)

UAVs allow us to safely inspect the railway in a tactile, efficient way while keeping the railway open and running at the same time.

Drones can reach areas where the helicopter can’t, such as doing close-up inspections of GSM-R masts for the railway’s mobile communication system.

We’ve recently used them on a number of coastal projects, including during repair work to Dover Sea Wall and for an impact study of coastal erosion, flooding and cliff instability on the railway line between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

Sometimes our team is needed at short notice. We have contracts with UAV suppliers based across the country, and they can reach emergency situations quickly if the helicopter is on other duties – urgent call-outs are arranged by our National Operations Centre.

Browse through the gallery below for more pictures

Our top eight most requested surveys

  • Projects (site surveys, scheme layouts, access points and security surveillance)
  • Monitoring overhead line equipment condition
  • Monitoring asset condition 
  • Identifying and locating overheating equipment
  • Identifying earthworks and drainage issues (including landslips)
  • Inspecting structures
  • Identifying and locating encroachment on to the railway
  • Monitoring vegetation control