How we use drones

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) or drones, are used to survey the railway for regular maintenance or following an incident. Drones  are a cost effective solution for  close-up inspections of difficult to access structures such as building roofs, bridges, communication masts and overhead wires. Carrying high-tech equipment, our drones gather data, videos and images of railway infrastructure so we can better understand what the problem is and what repairs are needed.

Carrying out inspections by air means we can keep the railway open and our people safe – trains can continue to run which improves performance and reliability, and as we’re not sending engineers onto tracks, it also improves safety.

In action

As part of the project to improve resilience of the railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot, we used a drone to survey the cliff face at Teignmouth, where the railway runs directly underneath. Uniquely, the drone was launched – and piloted from – a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB), bobbing along the coastline. Using a drone enabled the team to gather close-up footage in a much quicker timescale than the traditional use of helicopters and people power would allow, was a much safer and proved to be less intrusive for the local community.

Our drones – vital statistics

  • Weight – 7kg max weight allowed – about as heavy as a standard bowling ball
  • Range – permitted to fly up to 500 metres away from pilot (depending on weather conditions)
  • Flight – permitted to fly up to 400 feet high – slighter higher than St Paul’s Cathedral
  • Typical flight time before recharge – around 20 minutes
  • Crew – usually minimum of two. One pilot in command, and one observer/camera operator. Other missions may require more crew; spotters, engineers, aides and so on.
  • Camera – varies on mission and can include high-definition, 4K video imaging and high-resolution stills camera systems
  • Drone features:
    • Built-in Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) fencing – provides our pilots with up-to-date guidance on locations where flight is restricted by regulation or raised safety concerns. This includes restricted areas such as prisons, power plants and sensitive locations. The drone will not be able to fly into these areas, as if there is an invisible barrier or ‘forcefield’ in place
    • Built-in Return to Home (RTH) protocol – when activated, the drone automatically and safely returns to its launch site. RTH can be triggered if the transmitter signal becomes interrupted, it loses signal or when it’s running low on battery
    • Multiple motors and rotor blades – some of our drones have up to eight separate motors and can still fly on less if one were to fail or become defective mid-air

Find out more

Our Air Operations team

Drone safety and the law

External link

Information about all aspects of unmanned aviation – Civil Aviation Authority – Drones