Union Pacific Showcases Drone Program, Plans

An online article about the program says Union Pacific now has 80 employees certified to fly drones and hopes to have nearly 250 throughout its 32,100-mile network by December 2018.

An online article about Union Pacific's use of drones this week says the railroad currently has 80 employees certified to fly drones and hopes to have nearly 250 throughout its 32,100-mile network by December 2018.

Railroads have been using drone technology to inspect bridges and other rail infrastructure since 2014 because this allows them to use cameras where men used to hang from 800-foot-long metal bridges or 600-foot-high radio towers, it says. But because large steel structures can break the signal between the drone, the operator, and the orbiting GPS satellite, they've had to develop technology, called Perspective Navigation Technology (PNT), that allows UP to fly drones in places without GPS coverage.

The article quotes Bob Meder, Union Pacific's senior manager of unmanned aerial systems, who oversees the training and licensing of Union Pacific drone operators and works closely with the Federal Aviation Administration to make sure the railroad's policies meet or exceed federal requirements for drone pilots.

"About two and a half years ago, a group of us got together to begin exploring the use of drone technology," Meder says in the article. "Things have evolved rapidly since then."

The railroad's first live drone feed was done during the 2016 Cedar River floods in northern Iowa, he explains, and the article says the resulting images changed the UP recovery plan in this instance: The team added more ballast and sent resources in via a less-flooded rail route.

The next step for the team is to use autonomous drones that can do inspections on their own.

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