Europe is crisscrossed by hundreds of thousands of railways. The European railway system is critical for the connectivity of the continent for both commuter travel and the transportation of freight. Each country within the EU is responsible for maintaining these railways. It can be a massive undertaking to ensure that all tracks are in prime condition. Typically, track inspections are done at night when there is no planned train traffic. Using trolleys, tracks are manually inspected in a time consuming and inconsistent manner.
Bane NOR, Norway’s state appointed agency for maintaining railway systems, recently began exploring new technologies to improve track inspection procedures. For this, Bane NOR contracted Nordic Unmanned, a company that specializes in end-user drone systems. Founded in 2014 by Knut Roar Wiig, Nordic Unmanned develops remotely operated aerial systems specifically tailored to a user’s needs. This could be drones for subsurface or bridge inspections, maritime missions, or offshore cargo deliveries. For Bane NOR, Nordic Unmanned designed a drone that can replace a manned trolley for track inspections.
Called the Staaker Railway Drone, this drone combines aerial with ground maneuverability in an energy efficient package. The drone starts off as a typical quadrocopter that sits atop a pyramid shaped frame. Instead of flat landing feet at the bottom of the frame, the Staaker Railway Drone has four wheels, one for each corner of the pyramid. The spacing of the wheels mimics those of inspection trolleys, allowing the drone to perfectly fit on a rail. The inner edge of each wheel braces onto a rail so that the drone can drive along the track securely. The drone’s rotors spin to propel the drone up or down a track.
While on the track, the Staaker Railway Drone is equipped with a camera and a range of sensors. The data being collected by the drone is live streamed to a controller. This data can then be referenced for areas in need of repair. It will also create an up to date comprehensive map of Norway’s railways. Besides collecting railway data, the drone can apply lubricant to rails as it travels along. If a train is approaching the drone, it transitions into aerial mode. “Should the Railway Drone encounter oncoming traffic,” Nordic Unmanned’s website explains, “it can avoid dangerous situation by flying to the side of the track and let traffic pass. The sensors onboard the robot automatically detects changes on the railway, whilst providing a live data feed to decision makers.”
The Railway Drone does all of this with energy efficient hydrogen fuel cells. These hydrogen fuel cells mean that the drone has an exceptionally long use time. On a single battery charge, the Staaker Railway drone can be in use for up to 7 hours traveling at a speed of 20kmh (12.4mph). “The robot can cover up to 200 km,” (about 124miles) the website states, “which is a distance equivalent from Amsterdam – Brussel.”
By being able to autonomously avoid traffic, and switch to a different track, the drone can be used at any time without rails needing to be closed down for inspections. “Our ambition is to make rail maintenance and inspection far more efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly. So, it’s time for the rail industry to take full advantage of drone technology,” said Knut. The Staaker Railway Drone is currently being tested out by Bane NOR. Knut said that drones for railway use will become a key focus of Nordic Umanned’s 2025 growth strategy. He predicts that Staaker Railway Drones will be cruising along Europe’s continental railways within the first half of 2022.