Railway drone
BNSF Railway testing drones to enhance track inspections.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The next sound heard buzzing along the railroad tracks may not be a train but a drone instead. Railroads are exploring the use of the remote controlled flying machines to cost effectively monitor hundreds of miles of track, to aid in maintenance work and to enhance security.

The Federal Aviation Administration in March gave BNSF Railway Co. permission to use drones with several restrictions, two of which were that they be used only over BNSF railroad infrastructure and at speeds below 50 knots (57.6 miles per hour), according to a report in Progressive Railroading. BNSF said it hopes to use drones for added surveillance to supplement existing inspection protocols, although they would not eliminate in-person inspections mandated by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The FAA is responsible for regulating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly known as drones. On May 6 the FAA said it selected three companies — CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF — to participate in its UAS Pathfinder Program to explore the commercial use of drones beyond operations proposed in its draft UAS rule published in February. CNN will research how visual line-of-sight might be used for newsgathering in urban areas, and PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer, will survey crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside the pilot’s direct vision, the FAA said. CACI International Inc. was added to the program in October to evaluate if CACI’s technology can help detect drones in a five-mile radius of airports.

BNSF’s involvement will explore the use of drones to inspect rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas, and hopes to launch its Pathfinder initiative late in 2015, Progressive Railroading said.

PKP Cargo, a freight rail company in Poland, has been testing drones to enhance security since early 2014, according to Progressive Railroading. PKP reported the number of thefts along its rails dropped 44 percent and the value of stolen goods dropped 59 percent in the first half of 2015, and announced in September that it would use drones permanently to enhance security.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority last summer used drones to provide high-resolution pictures and real-time data to give contractors a comprehensive view of an extension project that allowed them to avoid potential issues, Progressive Railroading said.

Richard Gent, chief executive officer of Hot Rail LLC, a rail security consulting company, said in Progressive Railroading that drones were ideal for the rail industry because rail networks were fixed locations so drones always will be operating along the same line of airspace. He said other railroads were looking into using drones but they faced considerable challenges, noting that the FAA and state legislatures still were working out laws regulating drone technology, and that progress at this point was slow.