In 2014, over one-third of all train derailments were the result of damaged rails, leading to millions of dollars in damages and dozens of injuries. In many cases, expansive rail lines run through isolated areas that are difficult and expensive for inspectors to access, but early detection of damaged track is critical to preventing costly derailments. In response to this issue, BNSF Railway launched a new program that will use unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs; commonly called drones) to remotely inspect tracks. As part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Pathfinder Program, BNSF was granted rare permission to operate camera-equipped inspection drones beyond the visual line of sight (BVLOS) of operators, allowing the railway to inspect larger areas of track in remote locations across the Midwest and Western United States. (BNSF was one of only three inaugural commercial participants in the Pathfinder Program, along with media outlet CNN and drone manufacturer PrecisionHawk.) BNSF can now conduct inspections more frequently, and monitor rail conditions at a lower cost. Expanding BVLOS drone operation to inspect rails could more rapidly detect tracks in need of maintenance, increasing commercial efficiency and limiting the number of derailments.
Gamechanger added in 2016.