Drones in Infrastructure: Network Rail

drones network rail

Modern drone solutions have become an integral part of the safe inspection, management and repair of the UK’s infrastructure, with industry leaders Network Rail paving the way. Here we explore how Network Rail have successfully integrated SUAs into their Air Operations Team.

Who are Network Rail?

Network Rail own the UK’s railway infrastructure; building, maintaining and managing the majority of England, Scotland and Wales’ expansive rail network. They are responsible not only for the maintenance of the railway tracks, but also for bridges, viaducts, tunnels and level crossings – covering over 20,000 miles of track and 40,000 bridges!

They are a public company whose main customers are the private train and freight transport companies that operate across Britain’s railways. Private train operators manage over 2500 train stations, whilst Network Rail retain management of the UK’s 18 largest train stations, including Manchester Piccadilly, Glasgow Central and London Waterloo.

They are currently undergoing a major overhaul to the cost of several billion pounds, due to the ever-growing population and its increasing demand for public transport services. With expansion and development at the forefront of their business modernisation programme, new technology has stepped in to help keep up the pace for maintenance of the UK’s rail network.

Air Operations Team

Network Rail’s Air Operations Team is responsible for inspection of the entire railway network, whilst maintaining everyday services and avoiding any disruption for customers. Until recently, this was achieved by aerial inspection from helicopters. However, drone technology has now been introduced as a cheaper, safer and more efficient alternative to helicopters.

Those of you currently holding a Permission for Commercial Operations (PfCO) may be thinking – ‘but it’s illegal to fly a drone near a railway!?’ – and you would be correct. However, the NR Air Operations Team includes specially trained, in-house pilots and approved contractors, who are the only people authorised in the UK by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to undertake this level of work.

Network Rail’s drone fleet comprises of various multirotor aircraft, with the AscTec Intel Falcon 8 and Onyxstar Xena M often deployed (see images) with payloads being job-specific. All their missions include a minimum of 2 crew, with additional crew including engineers, field assistants etc.

Case Study: Royal Border Bridge

Last Year, Network Rail’s Structures Asset Management Team deployed SUAs to inspect 5 bridges along the LNE&EM route. Among these arch viaducts was the 28-span Royal Border Bridge in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland – a Grade 1 listed bridge with plenty of maintenance requirements!

As Sam De’Ath, Asset Engineer (Structures) explains: “It seemed a good idea for us to start unleashing UAVs on some of our bridges. They’ve turned out to be an excellent tool for the inspection of arch viaducts in particular, such that further UAV inspections are now being planned.”

The introduction of drones has provided the Structures team with a more efficient tool for initial inspection, whilst improving the safety of their rope-access engineers by only targeting specific areas of interest.

Sam also noted that: “Aerial inspections can’t fully replace an engineer with a hammer – some degree of tactile inspection is still needed – but we’re now able to use the better imagery to find areas of concern and target those.”


Image source: Network Rail

Case Study: Exeter and Newton Abbot Railway

As part of the Great Western route, the line between Exeter and Newton Abbott wraps around the Devon coastline with stops at Teignmouth, Dawlish and Starcross featured along the way. Storms in early 2014 caused havoc on the route, including the erosion and collapse of a railway section at Dawlish (see images).

Due to the regular occurrence of extreme weather along this stretch of coastline, National Rail are constantly reviewing and maintaining the line, which requires access to hard-to-reach and potentially dangerous areas.

In a move to reduce the risk to their workforce and improve safety measures, SUAs have been introduced by the team spearheading the research into resilience options for this railway line. Joanna Grew, Commercial Scheme Sponsor, highlighted: “Securing the future of this line is extremely important to us, which is why we are using the latest technology to build up the most accurate picture of the landscape, how it is likely to change, and what we can do to improve its resilience.”


Image source: Network Rail

It’s clear that drones are becoming a common tool within the infrastructure sector, due to their numerous safety, time and monetary advantages. It is likely that more and more organisations will deploy drones as part of their operational teams over the next few years.

Always remember, it is illegal to fly your drone near or along a railway. A drone colliding with a train, pylons and overhead wires, or landing on the tracks, could cause catastrophic damage to equipment and most importantly – people. Follow the Drone Code, obey UK law (incl. ANO 2016) and always hold appropriate insurance.


If you’d like to discuss using drones for inspection, or to learn more about gaining your drone pilot’s CAA Permission for Commercial Operations, now’s the time to speak with our expert training team. Don’t hesitate to get in touch with us today!


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