Unmanned aerial vehicles and the future of track and facility inspection

Denver’s unmanned aerial vehicle program has launched. What does this mean for the industry?

In July 2016, Metro received an Unsolicited Proposal to use unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) for a variety of tasks. While this proposal may hold exciting prospects for LA Metro as our vast rail network grows and ages, we would not be the first American transit agency to implement such an idea.

This spring, the RTD in the Denver area began using drones to inspect rail infrastructure. We caught up with them several months ago to get their advice and understand the technology a little bit better. In August, LA Metro participants visiting RTD as part of the Multi-Agency Exchange (MAX) program got to see the operation first hand. Several considered seeing this new technology in action to be a highlight of their visit.

Denver’s operation is impressive, lean and cheap. It is also diverse, using the technology for use cases from roof inspections to thermal track inspections. With off-the-shelf, non-proprietary equipment costing less than $20,000, the RTD is out in the field inspecting light rail tracks three to five days each week. They’re not only capturing high-quality data; they are increasing safety by keeping their employees off the tracks and saving money.

In other parts of the world, many transit agencies from London to Jerusalem are already using drones in public safety, asset inspection, and project management. Many more are investing millions to try and take advantage of this new technology.

We want to thank RTD for sharing their insights, and look forward to seeing how their practices compare against baselines of efficiency, effectiveness, safety, costs and externalities.

We look forward to seeing where their program takes them as we and other American agencies test these technologies and evaluate plans of our own.