Milestone drone flight for our railway

Milestone drone flight for our railway

Published 2 November 2021 | Average read time
3 min read
Stories Industry-leading Our fleet

Our Air Operations team has just reached a milestone in its vital work to keep the railway safe for your journeys.

The team has completed what we believe to be Britain’s longest civilian beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone flight over dry land. The 25-kilometre flight took place on 27 October from Bicester in Oxfordshire along East West Rail, which aims to rail links for communities between Oxford and Cambridge.

The proof-of-concept flight was the culmination of 18 months of work. It’s a significant step forward in terms of how we can use drones to inspect the railway safely, quickly and cost-effectively.

Drones and the railway

We’ve long used drones and helicopters to identify faults on the railway. This helps predict and prevent failures to reduce disruption for you. It’s also a safer form of maintenance by limiting the number of manual inspections that need to be carried out by foot.

Using drones for close-up inspections means we can reach areas that are usually difficult to access. These include roofs, bridges, coastal areas, the overhead wires that power electric trains and communication masts.

Inspecting the railway by air means we can keep lines open to train services and keep our people safe because we’re not sending engineers out on track unnecessarily.

Close-up of drone and laptop on an air field
Drones help us inspect the railway all over Britain

Until now, we only ever flew drones above the railway when they were in clear sight of the operator, and usually only for four or five kilometres at a time. 

This is a helpful tool to inspect Britain’s rail infrastructure but needs the team involved to set up their kit multiple times at different locations.

The ability to fly beyond visual line of sight enables the Air Operations team to inspect the railway over a much larger area while saving valuable time and costs.

Gallery: image of East West Rail taken by our drone; our drone ready for duty; our pilots, and one of our helicopters.

Our Air Operations team

Our fleet: machines and vehicles

Just Like Me: Q and A with pilot Rikke Carmichael

An essential service for our railway

Rikke Carmichael, head of Air Operations
Rikke Carmichael, head of Air Operations

Rikke Carmichael, 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, [the flight] 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.”

A Network Rail helicopter also flew alongside the drone to test whether or not the two could work together, and whether their respective systems recognised each other. It was proved that they did work effectively together. We’ll use data captured by the helicopter to create a ‘digital twin’ of the part of the railway it flew over.

Read more:

Our Air Operations team and how it helps us look after the railway

How we use drones

Helicopter and imaging equipment

Our fleet – machines and vehicles