Drones inspect Austrian railway lines

  • December 11, 2023
  • Steve Rogerson

Austrian railway infrastructure company ÖBB-Infrastruktur is using drone technology from local firm Frequentis to inspect tracks for damage.

Rockfall and storm damage on a railway line that is difficult to access mean the line has to be closed for safety reasons. ÖBB workers have to walk the tracks to find if it is just a few small stones or whether heavy clearing machines are needed. Are there branches or even tree trunks on the tracks or in the overhead line?

This work often takes a lot of time. Afterwards, the operations control centre is notified, and necessary measures are put in place.

That’s how it used to be. However, from now on drone garages will be distributed along ÖBB’s rail network to provide support. ÖBB has obtained authorisation to use drones that can be operated without direct visual contact with the pilots.

In cooperation with Frequentis and supported by Austro Control, this project was realised. Instead of sending employees on foot into hazardous, impassable terrain or snow-covered slopes, drones will be sent off from a nearby drone garage.

They will fly the defined route and send real-time images showing the line’s condition, meaning decisions regarding the next steps can be made immediately. Depending on the case, the use of drones will result in a huge amount of time saved, therefore reducing line closures. Passengers and railway companies can adapt more quickly to the situation thanks to this rapid receipt of information.

“The use of drones for line inspection is an important building block for the digital railway of tomorrow,” said Johann Pluy, board member at ÖBB-Infrastruktur. “Especially in impassable terrain, as we can rapidly gain a detailed overview of the situation and the necessary measures with a huge benefit to our customers.”

Norbert Haslacher, CEO of Frequentis, added: “Hangar-based drone flights are the technological answer to the strongly growing drone ecosystem. Frequentis has developed a highly automated solution that can be fully integrated into control centres and working positions of big infrastructure companies, as well as being easy to use for our clients’ employees. We are proud to carry out this pioneering work together with ÖBB and to have helped facilitate the first authorisation of this kind in Europe for our partner.”

And Valerie Hackl, managing director of air navigations services provider Austro Control, said: “The innovative potential of drones is enormous, and it is our declared goal as an aviation authority to support new, promising applications from development to use. We are therefore particularly pleased that we were able to support and approve this project. Automated drone flights without visual contact for monitoring infrastructure are a new and innovative approach, showing us what is already possible today with this still young technology.”

Frequentis (www.frequentis.com) is a supplier of communication and information systems for control centres with safety-critical tasks. The listed family company develops and markets its control centre products in the air traffic management, public safety and transport segments. The firm has a global network of companies and representatives in more than 50 countries. Its head office is in Vienna, Austria. The company’s products and services are used at more than 45,000 operator working positions in around 150 countries.