First demonstration of using drones to inspect the railway ‘beyond visual line of sight’ of the operator

The AmeyVTOL drone is able to operate beyond the visual line of sight of its operator.

For the first time on UK infrastructure, AmeyVTOL has demonstrated the use of a drone to inspect the railway out of sight of its operator.

Up until now, Civil Aviation Authority regulations have required all unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones – to be operated within visual line of sight (WVLoS) and, as such, could not go much further than 500 metres from the pilot. 

The safety reasons for this restriction are obvious. Once out of sight, the concern was that the drone could get out of control and crash, with obvious safety implications, both for people on the ground and for the safety of trains on the railway infrastructure.

Now AmeyVTOL – a joint venture between Amey and Wokingham-based drone specialist VTOL Technologies – has worked with Collins Aerospace to develop a UAV that can operate safely beyond visual line of sight (BVLoS). 

This successful trial, during which the VTOL flying wing surveyed an area of 2km autonomously and out of the sight of the pilot, opens up significant possibilities for BVLoS inspections of long linear infrastructure such as roads, railways and overhead power lines. Not only does BVLoS save time and massively reduce inspection and survey costs, it also increases the quality, volume, and repeatability of data – enabling better asset management decisions and more efficient maintenance. 

Most importantly, it also enables inspections and surveys to be undertaken without people needing to work alongside a live railway, removing ‘boots from ballast’. 

The AmeyVTOL Flying Wing drone was used in the demonstration.

The drone used in the demonstration was AmeyVTOL’s innovative Flying Wing, which has a flight range of up to 100 km on a single charge due to a unique hybrid design and specially developed energy system. It is fitted with state-of-the-art sensors that enable it to capture and send data in real time.

Furthermore, this innovative technology can use artificial intelligence to process data and provide faults automatically, allowing operators to make decisions from up above. The drone is not only efficient and silent, but it also has the ability to generate digital asset models.

The drone’s control systems were developed in conjunction with avionics specialist Collins Aerospace.

Key to the success of the trial was AmeyVTOL’s state-of-the-art operational control centre which enables the planning, simulation, and remote monitoring of BVLoS drone operations. The advanced communications and simulation capabilities were developed in partnership with aerospace systems and avionics specialist Collins Aerospace, a unit of Raytheon Technologies Corporation, owner of US engine giant Pratt & Whitney. 

Alex Gilbert, Amey Consulting.

Alex Gilbert, managing director of Amey Consulting, commented on the demonstration: “We are delighted to have successfully trialled a UK first for asset management.

“Through our collaboration with SME VTOL technologies, we have developed a genuine innovation that could transform inspections and surveys for asset owners in both the public and private sector.

“Being able to go beyond visual line of sight will not just provide safer, more effective inspections, but it will empower asset managers with increasingly reliable data, resulting in informed, intelligent decision making.”

The successful demonstration was part of a government-sponsored Rail First of a Kind (FOAK) programme. It was promoted by Innovate UK through the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI), which is designed to bring together government challenges and ideas from businesses to create innovative solutions. SBRI was instrumental in enabling this first demonstration of BVLoS operations.

This capability to fly BVLoS will now be offered to infrastructure owners and operators that want to deliver efficient and repeatable asset safety and condition inspections, as well as perform topographical surveys, without placing people in hazardous environments.

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