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UAVs: Looking at Public Transportation Safety and Security from Another Perspective

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, can be used to inspect infrastructure and enhance safety and security. At a Tuesday session, “Eyes in the Sky—The Use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Drones) in Transit,” three experts discussed some applications for UAVs in a public transit setting.

Sgt. Will Saunders Jr., a police officer with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority in Philadelphia, described how the agency established its Special Operations Aerial Reconnaissance Unit approximately two years ago to inspect facilities in response to terrorist threats. The agency later developed its UAV program by adding forward-looking infrared cameras to inspect track hotspots.

Saunders outlined six steps that other agencies could follow to establish a UAV program:

* Step 1, budget: startup, continuing, growth costs—for both pilots and equipment;
* Step 2, departmental goals: write an internal policy document (ideally written by a pilot or someone with a working knowledge of UAVs and their capabilities); write an external mission statement to alert the public on what you are doing and why;
* Step 3, UAVs: number and type applicable to department/environment;
* Step 4, pilots: number—anticipate shift schedules; pilot selection—maturity to fly responsibly in airspace; training, testing and continuing education;
* Step 5, FAA licensing and testing: consider applications for certain operating waivers and exemptions, such as flying at night and/or beyond the visual line of sight of the operator; and
* Step 6: paperwork: establish flight history logs, pre-flight checklists, post-flight checklists and incident and maintenance reports.

“UAVs as part of a patrol unit are a force multiplier,” said Saunders. “They can save time and money.”

Mike Nabhan, chair of APTA’s Emerging Technology Subcommittee and asset management administrator/report developer for Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD), described the relative ease with which his agency established its UAV program. “Any agency can do this,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be expensive; in fact, it can save your agency money and there are benefits outside of safety.”

Prior to its UAV operations, RTD’s inspection regimen consisted of two inspectors walking along the entire alignment and documenting conditions along the way—causing slow zones that negatively impacted customers. UAVs flying overhead do not affect regular revenue service.
Panelists, from left: Mike Nabhan, Onala Atala, Sgt. Will Saunders Jr. and Eric Sherrock.

“Inspectors can fly along the line in a fraction of the time,” Nabhan said. “Inspecting the underside of bridges and other infrastructure can also be completed far more quickly using a UAV.”

With initial, limited resources, RTD took its UAV program from concept to flying in approximately one year, but Nabhan said he believes that, fully staffed, such a program could be operational ­significantly faster.

RTD chose off-the-shelf equipment over procuring specialized systems for cost, user-friendly ease of training and a large community of current users to whom employees could turn for advice.

The agency uses its UAVs only for asset inspections, marketing videos and training purposes—not for security functions—and is looking into the potential for automated data analysis and autonomous inspections.

Eric Sherrock, program manager with ENSCO Inc., discussed a survey the firm conducted in 2017 on behalf of FRA’s Office of Research, Development and Technology, “Unmanned Aircraft System Applications in International Railroads” [available here]. The report analyzed the use of UAVs in international railroad systems and how to adopt best practices for the U.S.

Rotary-wing UAVs are prevalent and present a number of advantages (short or vertical takeoff; easily controllable, especially around bridges and other infrastructure), explained Sherrock. Such vehicles, however, offer low payloads and flight duration. New, “hybrid” vehicles, as operated by BNSF, blend the best of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft.

BNSF has long been at the forefront of UAV operations, he said, deploying a diverse fleet for such applications as assessing concrete crossties; using image detection to identify broken rails, track buckling and misalignments; and fouled ballast detection.

Sherrock described an emerging technology, the nano-UAV, that presents a number of interesting possibilities for railroad applications. Weighing approximately 1 ounce, these craft can be launched from the operator’s hand. “Think about having a swarm of these UAVs,” he said, “and you launch them around a bridge or a switch or other previously inaccessible location to capture 3-D images and, when they return to home base, integrate the images into the most detailed assessment of that asset.”

Sherrock then drew on the study to provide an overview of some international UAV applications. In the United Kingdom, Network Rail has been using UAVs for several years to inspect seawalls and other areas of difficult accessibility, for monitoring trespassing and suicide hot spots, for assessing drainage issues around tracks and for vegetation and wildlife management.

Deutsche Bahn in Germany began using UAVs approximately five years ago, primarily to target vandalism, using thermal imaging and video to track and identify perpetrators. The agency then expanded into environmental monitoring and surveying large-scale construction projects.

Railroads in the Netherlands have been using UAVs equipped with thermal imaging to monitor the performance of switch heaters.

Onala (Tony) Atala, vice president, AECOM, moderated the session.
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