Since assuming office, French Secretary of State for Transport Alain Vidalies has consistently stated that maintaining the rail network should be the strategic priority for newly-reorganised state-owned railway SNCF Group.
In September 2014, Mr Vidalies reiterated the French government’s determination to develop France’s drone industry.
SNCF Group’s Drone Policy
The use of drones within the rail system illustrates SNCF’s ability to innovate in meeting the challenge of helping the railway operate safely and securely whilst ensuring availability and reliability.
SNCF is now a major player on the French scene as regards innovation and drones. The group has invested in the necessary skills both to develop drones as a system (vehicles, sensors, operating systems, data acquisition and processing), and to adapt the system to the specific needs of the railway in the fields of maintenance and security.
A dedicated team
SNCF has assembled a team of 15 people covering the full range of skills required: researchers, specialist engineers, experienced remote pilots (former air force pilots who have switched to civil aviation).
A sizeable fleet
By end of 2015 SNCF’s in-house capability will number around 10 drones, a fleet big enough to meet the group’s needs and requirements. For non-railway-specific interventions, SNCF also operates with suitably-qualified industrial partners, thus helping drive up in drone-industry standards as a whole in France.
A major R&D programme
SNCF has already invested 10 million Euros over three years. Almost three quarters of this budget is earmarked for research & development and is spread amongst a number of projects, most notably the multi-year partnership with ONERA (France’s national aerospace research & development centre), which encompasses work on sensors, mission design, and indoor mapping. The project portfolio also includes partnerships with a number of start-ups and other companies.
In the sphere of maintenance, infrastructure manager SNCF Réseau currently uses drones for:
- Close inspection of rock faces, as required by law: these inspections, which aim to ascertain the risk of rockfalls onto the railway, usually take place on foot or sometimes using cradles or rope access, but can be complicated to conduct. Drones are flexible and agile, and can collect detailed information with no risk to staff safety and without disrupting operations, allowing decisions on the maintenance measures needed to be taken quickly. Around 30 such structures will be inspected by drone by end of 2015.
- Drawing up the “Vegetation” maintenance plan: this plan involves pinpointing trees which may compromise traffic safety or punctuality. Currently this information is collected by foot patrols or by observation from the driver’s cab. Drones enable detailed mapping of vegetation with a view to defining at-risk (i.e. priority) areas and calculating the biomass volumes involved (in order to pay vegetation-removal companies for the exact number of trees felled). It also allows us to identify the resources needed for the task (access, embankment gradients, nature of intervention). By end of 2015, a vegetation maintenance plan including the use of drones will have been applied to 200 km of the DIJON - LYON line.
- Inspection of station roofing and structures: inspecting station roofs requires rope access, whilst inspecting the supporting structures requires scaffolding. Drones can perform an assessment without the need for costly resources, reducing the duration of the work (and thus the unavailability of the facilities affected) and providing a fuller, more detailed diagnosis.
Long-range drones can also perform a quick post-event diagnosis following extreme weather (particularly storms).
In terms of railway security, SNCF’s two major challenges are:
- Surveying 30,000 km of open line vulnerable to all manner of misconduct (metal theft, obstruction with objects, tampering with facilities, etc.) in order to ensure continuity and punctuality of public transport services.
- Establishing ourselves as one of France’s leaders in the field of technological innovation with security applications.
Drones are a new tool amongst the resources available to SNCF’s in-house security service (SUGE), enabling their night-time patrols to cover more of the network. The principle is to detect trespass and metal theft (particularly copper), both of which cause major disruption.
Outlook for 2016
- Dozens of rock faces will be inspected during the first half of the year, before a new multi-year contract takes effect.
- The “Vegetation” plan will be rolled out to various regions (still to be defined).
- Catenary-inspection tours will take place, predominantly in the Île de France area.
- Buildings will be inspected, firstly to establish their structural condition (roofing, walls) and secondly to perform preliminary modernisation studies.
- Already used in 2015 for topographical surveys, SNCF will make further use of drones to conduct studies for fibre-optic installation and infrastructure regeneration (various sites), and to update maps and charts (e.g. station surrounds).
- Night-time surveillance for security purposes will be extended to a number of hotspots and trackworks sites.
- Research and Development work will continue, notably via the partnership with ONERA, and through various national projects and collaborations with start-ups.
Like digital applications and new technologies, drones are helping transform SNCF and meet SNCF Réseau’s needs in terms of maintenance cost and efficiency.