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A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Photograph by Matthew Brown — AP

Why BNSF Railway is using drones to inspect thousands of miles of rail lines

Updated: May 29, 2015 6:18 PM UTC

After years of accus ations of foot-dragging on unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) regulation, the Federal Aviation Administration has recently been speeding exemption approvals and announcing new regulatory programs. One beneficiary is BNSF Railway, which has gained approval for a pilot(less) program to use drones to inspect its far-flung network of rails . The inspections could help reduce derailments and other safety problemsand though BNSF isn’ t saying so, lead to lower labor costs in the long run.

Rail safety is drawing new focus after May’s catastrophic Amtrak derailment. Though that accident’s immediate cause was excessive speed, the Federal Railroad Administration reports that nearly 500 derailments were caused by defective track in 2014, making up more than a third of total rail accidents. Those derailments caused 35 injuries and $94 million in damages last year. BNSF says its drones will allow for more frequent track inspections, which should reduc e track-caused derailments.

The FAA has greenlit m ore than 400 so-called “333 exemptions” for limited drone operations since this February. But u nlike most operators, BNSF will be te sting UAV’s outside of direct visual contact with their operator , referred to as “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS, operation. BVLOS operation is regarded as more risky by the FAA.

BNSF has earned this special right as part of the FAA’s Pathfinder program, an initiative to develop UAV regulation in collaboration with industry that was announced in May. CNN and the drone systems maker PrecisionHawk USA are the other two inaugural participants, and the FAA has invited applicants from other sectors.

The ability to fly drones long distances is crucial to BNSF’ s goals for the program . The railway owns over 32,500 miles of rail line across the U.S., and says that every foot of track is inspected in person twice a week. But some of that track is hundreds of miles from any major population center, increasing the expense and inconvenience of manned inspection. BNSF has emphasized that its drone program would allow for more frequent inspections, rather than replacing human crews.

A few technical obstacles do face the program. BNSF announced that its initial UAV fleet will include AirRobot models AR180 and AR200, and 3DRobotics Spektres . Those three models are multi-rotor copters, which would be able to hover for closer inspecti on of areas of concern, but the range of rotor UAV’s is generally quite limited. The AR180, for instance, flies less than four miles on a charge.

The imaging payloads for these drones is also still a question mark. While visible-spectrum cameras could detect some obvious obstructions , s ome crucial rail way faults are invisible to the naked eye. I nspection teams today use ultrasound equipment weigh ing up to hundreds of poundsvastly more than even a large drone could tote.

According to University of Oklahoma-based UAV expert James Grimsley , one alternative is laser-based profiling, or LIDAR. T he Canadian company Pavemetrics has shown its laser-based system can detect hairline cracks in rails and ties , and DARPA is developing a chip-based LIDAR that would be very lightweight .

BNSF representatives have emphasized that safety is the program’s only immediate goal. Though the Federal Railroad Administration reports that rail accident rates have fallen by 43 percent since 2000, freight derailments are still potentially catastrophic. The increasing presence of crude oil on the rails is a particular concerntwo crude oil tankers have derailed in Philadelphia in the last two years, just around the corner from last month’s Amtrak crash.

D rones could also save lives even without inspecting track. Hundreds of people are killed every year while trespassing on railroad propertymany times more than are killed while travelling on passenger rail. Aerial drones would be significantly more effective than landbound s ecurity forces in detecting trespassers.

But , despite BNSF’s public emphasis on safety, drone-based inspections also present a huge potential labor efficiency. The work is both remote and demanding, with the FRA’s description making sure to mention that inspectors may have to deal with “disagreeable insects, toxic vegetation, or poisonous snakes.”

Though injury and fatality rates for rail inspectors specifically are not tracked by the government, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that railroad workers as a whole suffer more than twice the national worker fatality rate, with more than ¼ of fatalities among pedestrian workers struck by trains. Those conditions help push private rail inspector salaries to a mean of more than $71,000 a year, according to the BLS. Equipping those inspectors with drones could eventually allow the same work to be done by far fewer people.