Edwardian bridge in Norfolk in full swing
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Sometimes it’s the modest, seemingly mundane ways that drones affect how people live and work that best illustrate the integral roles they now assume in daily life. Take, for example, how they’ve helped a budget-strapped organization cut the time and costs of repairing three Edwardian-era bridges in the east of England.

Bridge repair with drones

Drones deployed by the UK’s Network Rail have been credited with vastly speeding up surveying and planning time needed to service and repair three swing bridges in east England’s Norfolk County. Each of the structures – named for the way they pivot on central pillars from positions spanning opposite banks to stand parallel to water flows so boats can pass – are  well over 100 years old. That age, in addition to the antique mechanisms used to swing the bridges back and forth, has made a great deal of doctoring routine. 

In fact, supervisors say each structure gets at least one maintenance inspection per week, and over 20 unscheduled repair calls per year in response to breakdowns. That means countless hours of human travel and eyeballing, testing and restoration work. Network Rail decided there had to be a speedier, less expensive solution.

Enter the drones, horizon right.

Network Rail, which manages track infrastructure in Norfolk and most of the UK, has turned to drones as quicker-moving eyes in the sky. Video from the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) allows supervisors to get faster, fuller views from a greater number of angles. Using that, they prioritize repair and maintenance work fo spots needing them most – as well as those that clearly will soon. 

Drone economies reinvested in rails

Johnathan Harris, Network Rail’s designated project engineer for the swing bridges, calculates the increased efficiencies derived from UAV inspections will save over $141,000 per year, or over a million dollars within a decade. That may not sound like much in a billionaire’s world. But with Network Rail’s status as a quasi-public organization that largely relies on taxpayer money to function, any dollar saved is another precious pound it can reinvest back into the infrastructure.

And those savings in maintenance are just the start. Network Rail currently is preparing to launch a $7.8 million program to replace the hydraulic jacks, pipework, and lighting on all three bridges, and outfit them with new power systems. Harris says use of drones in the preparatory surveying and analysis process has shaved several months off the time humans working alone would have required to complete it. That translates into tens of thousands of dollars in surveyor’s fees economized by faster, cheaper, more mobile UAVs.

Harris calculates total economies realized through drone operation around the three bridges should exceed $10.6 million over the next 25 years. That’s a big chunk of change Network Rail may use to buy an entire fleet of drones to improve maintenance and repair work to its tracks across the UK.

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