ÖBB to test Frequentis drones for track maintenance checks

Norbert Haslacher, Frequentis; Johann Pluy, ÖBB ÖBB

Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) will roll out drone garages across its railway network for a one-year trial to make track maintenance checks more efficient. Vienna-based drone manufacturer Frequentis is supplying drones for ÖBB-Infrastruktur. The project is realised with the support of Austro Control, the air navigation services provider that oversees Austrian airspace.

ÖBB-Infrastruktur says it is the first rail infrastructure company in the EU to receive authorisation for the operation of drones without direct visual contact with pilots, called Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flights. The Austrian railway company will be strategically placing drone garages throughout its rail network. The primary focus of this joint effort is proactively preventing railway incidents via routine maintenance flights, enabling early detection of infrastructure damage, natural hazard management, route monitoring, and emergency response.

ÖBB’s dense rail network has almost 10,000 kilometres of track and over 1,000 stations and stops. Automated drones can therefore help provide faster, more efficient, and more frequent rail track maintenance checks, by reducing the need for railway personnel to perform physical inspections on remote work sites. Johann Pluy, Member of the Board of ÖBB-Infrastruktur AG. “With the help of BVLOS flights, we will not only increase the safety of our facilities but will also be able to handle extra tasks more frequently and at lower cost in the future.”

Cooperative agreement

Drones will be launched by ÖBB from nearby drone garages, and can autonomously navigate predefined routes while transmitting real-time images of the line’s condition. This allows for immediate decision-making on necessary actions, potentially saving significant time and minimising disruptions. The use of drones not only enhances efficiency but also facilitates swift adaptation by passengers and railway companies to evolving situations through the rapid acquisition of information, according to the railway company.

The goal of routine maintenance flights is the swift identification of infrastructure damage or hazards near the tracks, facilitating timely resolution. Executing Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights poses a challenge, both administratively and technically, according to ÖBB. ÖBB-Infrastruktur and Frequentis’s cooperation agreement aims to enhance the understanding of automated drone flights, including their limitations concerning official regulations, weather conditions, topography, and other factors.

Frequentis drone

Testing phase

The future entails the execution of complex and automated drone flights outside the line of sight in adherence to regulations, with testing in various railway-relevant scenarios. Additionally, the potential applications of digitalised railway operations are under scrutiny to comprehensively assess all aspects for the approval of these automated flights.

A 12-month trial period will provide Frequentis with insights into the viability, stability, regulatory requisites, and potential applications of drone hangars, laying the groundwork for future innovations in drone technology. ÖBB aims to obtain flight permits for automated drone flights from its operations centre through this collaboration, planning weekly trial flights over ÖBB routes to continually enhance their understanding and operational capabilities. The one-year initiative will encompass various use cases, including incident response, route availability checks, natural hazard forecasting, inspections, and shunting operations.

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Author: Emma Dailey

Emma Dailey is an editor at RailTech.com and RailTech.be.

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