FAA Pathfinder test inspects rail tracks

January 12, 2016  - By

Launching at a tower site near Vaughn, New Mexico, Insitu accomplished a commercial beyond-visual-line-of-sight operation with an unmanned aerial system (UAS).

The Oct. 25 event marked the beginning of a week-long series of flights with BNSF Railway designed to show how UAVs can enhance the safety of critical infrastructure by aiding with inspections.

During the 14 hours of flyovers, the Insitu ScanEagle targeted problems such as washouts and bridge damage. The information gathered was then fed back to Insitu personnel on the ground in real time.

Insitu and BNSF officials launch ScanEagle for the historic first flight. (Photo: Insitu Inc.)

Insitu and BNSF officials launch ScanEagle for the historic first flight. (Photo: Insitu Inc.)

The flights were part of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Pathfinder program announced on May 6. For Pathfinder, the FAA selected three companies — CNN, PrecisionHawk and BNSF — to explore commercial use of drones beyond operations proposed in its draft UAS rule published in February.

The FAA tasked BNSF Railway, the second-largest freight railroad network in North America, with inspecting rail infrastructure beyond visual line of sight. BNSF operates 32,500 miles of track.

BNSF selected the Scan-Eagle because it carries an FAA certification for commercial applications. The UAV is capable of providing 3D rendering as well as high-resolution video magnification.

In its first day of operations, the ScanEagle UAV provided real-time video covering 64 miles of the 132-mile stretch of track that BNSF has designated for the exercise. The ScanEagle is capable of flying for up to 24 hours at speeds of up to 80 knots.
The exercise demonstrated how, in addition to a railway company’s traditional methods of track monitoring, unmanned aircraft can not only improve inspections, but keep employees out of harm’s way and harsh conditions.

Insitu, a subsidiary of The Boeing Company, creates and supports unmanned systems and software technology for collecting, processing and understanding sensor data.

Under Pathfinder, CNN is researching visual line of sight operations for newsgathering in urban areas, and working with Georgia Tech University to improve newsgathering for all organizations. PrecisionHawk is investigating agricultural operations for rural areas, flying outside line of sight.

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