Rail company claims longest drone BVLOS flight ever in UK

UK BVLOS drone

UK train infrastructure operator Network Rail successfully completed what is says is the longest beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) drone mission ever flown in the country.

Network Rail said the record-setting UK BVLOS drone flight took place on Wednesday over a 25-kilometer area of lines in its East West Railway system, about halfway between London and Birmingham. The so-called arms-length public interest company, which is required to reinvest any profits it makes back into operations, said the trial raised hopes of increasing use and extended missions of UAVs to enhance safety, and radically reduced costs incurred by helicopter flights. Network Rail said it put 18 months of careful planning into the trial.

Previously, choppers were the only real option in long-distance inspections. Those were too long for traditional human assessments conducted on foot, which even in shorter-range situations involve a risk of accidents in the event of a train unexpectedly passing. Of late, drones have been added to that UK rail monitoring mix, but were limited to about 4 kilometers that didn’t require BVLOS authorization.

Now, officials hope the successful test flight will lead to a time when those are common.

“While flying beyond visual line of sight will ultimately provide us with much greater capability, it is worth emphasizing that this was a proof-of-concept flight, and that a shift to using BVLOS as business as usual will take some time,” noted Rikke Carmichael, head of Network Rail’s aerial operations.

“Nonetheless, yesterday was an important milestone and I’d like to thank my team for all their hard work on this project over the last couple of years,” Carmichael continued. “We’ll now turn our attention to agreeing on a strategy for using drones both VLOS and BVLOS, after which we will want to engage with industry for the next exciting phase of BVLOS becoming another routine service the Air Ops team provides the business.”

That unprecedented UK BVLOS drone outing involved another experimental aspect. A Network Rail helicopter accompanied the UAV on its mission, testing their ability to work together in relatively close proximity and ensuring their respective onboard tech systems recognized each other. That, too, came off without a hitch, with Network Rail now planning to use data collected to create a digital twin of the railway lines the pair overflew. 

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